Although Black Americans began producing films in the earliest days of the moving pictures, nearly all of these films from the silent period (1896-1927) are lost. For decades, film historians have believed that the earliest surviving Black produced films date to the 1920s. Recently, Cara Caddoo (Associate Professor in the Department of History and The Media School at Indiana University, Bloomington) identified footage from a long assumed lost film, The Trooper of Troop K, produced by the Black-operated Lincoln Motion Picture Company in 1916. Below, she provides some background about the film, which is the earliest known surviving footage from a black film company.
Clip from The Trooper of Troop K (1916), edited from the original digitized footage by Andrew Grodner.
In May 1916, four Black men, Noble Johnson, J. Thomas Smith, Clarence and Dudley Brooks, and Harry Gant, a white camera operator, organized the Lincoln Motion Picture Company to produce “Negro moving pictures that will reflect merit and credit upon the race, as well as opening a field of employment to Negroes and an opportunity to make profitable financial investments.”  Soon after, Noble Johnson’s brother George P. Johnson joined the company as its Booking Manager.
The Trooper of Troop K, produced in 1916, was the Lincoln’s second feature film. The production ran into problems from the start. Noble had to balance his responsibilities as the Lincoln’s President and star actor with his work as a full-time actor for Universal. At the time, actors generally worked six days a week, Monday to Saturday, from sunup to sundown. That meant they only had Sundays, his only day off, to finish the film. Then, just as Trooper was nearly complete, a fire at the processing laboratory destroyed part of the footage, delaying the picture’s release date.
The Lincoln’s directors were devastated by the fire. But instead of giving up, they used the setback to their advantage. They expanded the film, added additional scenes, and ultimately produced what became the most profitable of all the Lincoln’s productions.
According to the company’s synopsis of Trooper, Joe (Noble Johnson) is “unkept and careless of dress,” and can’t seem to keep a job. He has a crush on a high school-educated girl from his hometown, Clara Holmes (Beulah Hall), who takes a charitable interest in his well-being, much to the dismay of her “ardent admirer” Jimmy, a popular man-about-town played by real-life Los Angeles heartthrob Jimmie Smith, who later became a well-known casting agent for Black actors in Hollywood. 
One day, Joe decides to spend his last pennies on flowers for Clara. But instead of impressing her, his gesture backfires. Clara tells him that he needs to “clean up his act.” Joe finds a job but arrives late because of his “deep love and sympathy for animals.” Flustered, he accidentally drops a hod of bricks on his foreman and is summarily fired. When Joe tells Clara what happened, she is disappointed. Jimmy (whose hard-working mother, a washerwoman, pays for his fancy clothes), responds with disgust. Clara suggests that Joe join the army, which she hopes will cure him of his “shiftiness.” 
In the army, Joe is “still a little crude and shiftless,” but his captain is charmed by his good-hearted nature and the way he takes care of his horse. When the men are dispatched to Mexico, Joe and his fellow soldiers are drawn into the Battle of Carrizal. The story ends happily after Clara reads about Joe’s accomplishments in the newspapers. She “denounces Jimmy for his false accusations,” and welcomes Joe home “with open arms.” 
The surviving footage from Trooper, which you see in the clip above, is only about fifteen seconds in length. Yet it’s filled with rich imagery—including the only footage we have of Noble Johnson in a Lincoln production. In the scene, Clara holds what appears to be a letter, which she excitedly reads to Jimmy. Next, we see a title card decorated with images of saguaro cacti— at the time, a common visual signifier of Mexico. The title card suggests that the scene occurs sometime after Joe has left for Mexico, while he is “doing duty…near Casas Grandes, Mexico,” and Jimmy is at home “finding it not so clear sailing with Clara.” When the film cuts from the title card back to Jimmy and Clara, we see a quick iris shot of Noble appear behind Jimmy’s shoulder. The look on Clara’s face—jealousy? concern? indignation?—surely alludes to a turning point in her relationship with Jimmy and her feelings about Joe.
When the United States began gearing up for World War I, Trooper became a symbol of the vital importance of Black Americans to the nation’s war efforts. According to the synopsis, Joe is transformed by his experiences as a soldier–but in the end, it’s the army that depends on him. In an act of bravery, Joe saves his captain and distinguishes himself on the battlefield. Yet the popularity of Trooper should not be simply interpreted as an indication of its audiences’ unquestioning patriotism. When another picture featuring heroic Black soldiers, From Harlem to the Rhine, screened at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem in 1920, a young man in attendance refused to remove his hat during the performance of “The Star Spangled Banner,” explaining, “the American flag meant nothing to him.” 
As brief as it is, this remarkable clip from Trooper offers a glimpse at some the reasons why so many African Americans loved the picture. Clearly, it’s beautifully composed, the acting is charming, and the use of special effects offer a bit of well-placed humor. As I’ve written in my book Envisioning Freedom: Cinema and the Building of Modern Black Life, such films are not only evidence of African Americans’ contributions to the making of American cinema but also of the vital importance of moving pictures to the forging of a Black post-emancipation culture of freedom and enjoyment. 
 “Some Facts Concerning the Lincoln Motion Picture Co., Inc., and its Productions,” GPJ Box 55, folder 2.
 Handbill, “The Trooper of Company K,” c. 1916, Box 55, George P. Johnson Negro Film Collection, 1916–1977, University of California, Los Angeles, Library Special Collections.
 New York Age, May 22, 1920, p. 6.
 Cara Caddoo, Envisioning Freedom: Cinema and the Building of Modern Black Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014). For more about the role of leisure in Black life after emancipation, see Tera Hunter, To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997).