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Noble Johnson and Frank Silvera – The Original “Race Shifters”

Noble Johnson and Frank Silvera - The Original "Race Shifters"

I’ve previously written about Dwayne Johnson (here) as what I described as a “race shifter;” but long before The Rock, there was another movie “race shifter” who you could say paved the way
for Johnson. I’m referring to that other Johnson by the name of Noble.

Noble
Johnson had one of the most impressive and longest careers as a
supporting actor appearing in some 150
films, from the early silent period, starting in 1915, well into the sound era, appearing in
his last film, in 1950, 28 years before his death. But he was also, along
with Oscar Micheaux, a true black
film pioneer.

Back in 1915, before Micheaux started making his own
films in 1919, Noble, along with his
brother George, founded the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, which was created to produce and distribute
all-black films. The brothers’ goal for
their company, they stated at the time,
was to “encourage black pride” and to present a different image than the
usual stereotyped, degrading images of
black people at the time.

Their company made five films – “The
Realization of a Negro’s Ambition” (1916), “Trooper of Company K” (1917), “The Law of Nature” (1917), “A Man’s
Duty” (1919) and “By Right of Birth” (1921) with Noble starring in all of those films.

The pictures were financially very successful at first, though it was a real struggle.
Despite the success of the earlier films, it was hard to raise money, and Noble, who by this time was a contract player
for Universal, had to use his salary
to help funds projects. There were also distribution problems with the Lincoln Company going up against the
growing power of bigger film studios.

Things were further complicated by the fact that
Universal didn’t exactly take too kindly to one of their contract players, in
effect, working for the competition, and gave Noble an ultimatum – it’s either us
or Lincoln. And since he was getting a
regular paycheck from Universal while things were iffy, at best, with his own company, Noble felt he had no
choice.

By 1923, the Johnson brothers ended their production
company, and Noble continued his acting career. However, because of his light
skin and not clearly defined ethnic features, Noble played all sorts of ethnic
roles from African tribal chiefs in films like “King Kong,” to Polynesians, Latinos,
Asians, Arabs, Indians, an Eskimo and Native
Americans (lots of Native Americans actually). And occasionally he even played a white
person, such as in the 1935 RKO Pictures thriller, “Most Dangerous Game,” where he played a sinister Russian named Ivan (pictured
above).

Similarly, the Jamaican born Frank Silvera (pictured left) was known as “The man with a thousand faces,”
who, in his long and extensive film (around 76 film and TV roles) and stage career, played all sorts of ethnic types, usually Italians (such as in Roger Corman’s 1967 film “The St. Valentine Day’s Massacre”) and countless roles as Latinos (especially as Mexicans) in films like Elia Kazan’s “Viva Zapata” with Marlon Brando.

But it’s worth pondering if either Johnson or Silvera had
any thoughts about being “race shifters” – moving fluidly from one ethnicity to
the next on screen. They were, no doubt, hard working actors, sometimes appearing in
several films a year, and making a good living – something that any
actor would be grateful for.

If they insisted that they would only play what would
have been considered “black” roles at the time, one could imagine that they
would have been stuck playing the usual stereotyped roles that practically
any black actor would have been stuck doing back then. On top of that, they also would
have found th availability of roles very limited indeed.

Neither Silvera nor Johnson ever hid the fact that they
were black actors, but rather took advantage of their situations for their own benefit, to produce bodies of work that made them the envy of other supporting and character actors during their long careers. 

But do you think they did the right thing or
not?

And suppose you were in their situation, what would
you have done?

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