In 1915, the film "Birth of a Nation" burst onto movie screens. The film's strident message of white supremacy and portrayal of hooded Klansmen as "heroes" lamentably posed no obstacle to its commercial success.
A century after that film's debut, an African-American director named Nate Parker resolved to make a cinematic response. His film, "The Birth of a Nation," depicts the horrors of American slavery and tells the story of the Nat Turner slave rebellion in 1831.
Parker's film received a prolonged standing ovation at this year's Sundance Film Festival, where it was awarded the top prize and was purchased for distribution by a major studio.
The award for Parker's film comes amid complaints that this year's Oscar nominations failed to pay proper notice to the work of non-white artists.
It's a fitting moment, then, to note a positive historical connection linking Omaha to our country's black film heritage. It's fitting, too, in recognition of Black History Month.
When protests against "Birth of a Nation" in 1915 failed to turn public opinion against the film, brothers George and Noble Johnson joined with three associates to form the country's first production company operated by African-Americans — and it was started in Omaha.
Called the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, the firm's logo carried an image of Abraham Lincoln, signer of the Emancipation Proclamation. Formed in 1916, the company opened offices the following year in Los Angeles.
During its five-year existence, until 1921, the Lincoln Motion Picture Company produced a series of films that rebutted negative stereotypes of African-Americans and sought to convey the fullness of black life in America. The company's inaugural creation, "The Realization of a Negro's Ambition," was released in 1916. It was the first feature-length film produced by and starring black American artists.
The film told the story of a fictional young engineering graduate of the Tuskegee Institute, played by Noble Johnson, who leaves home to seek employment in the oil fields of California. The hero is initially denied a job because of his race. He later finds work after a wealthy businessman comes to see the protagonist's humanity.
The company's final film, "By Right of Birth," was released in 1921 and explored the lives of middle-class blacks.
As was the case for decades in the 20th century, distribution opportunities for black-produced films proved a challenge. The Lincoln Motion Picture Company did organize a relatively successful showing of "By Right of Birth" in Los Angeles. And the presentation of the film in New Orleans marked that city's first mixed-race movie attendance.
In general, though, black-created films tended to be shown primarily to smaller audiences in churches, schools and community halls. In 1921, financial difficulties led the Lincoln Motion Picture Company to disband.
Despite that setback, the ambition of talented black artists to create films of their own lived on. In the 21st century, that dream finds expression in the works of Nate Parker and other AfricanAmerican artists, building on a foundation laid a century ago in Omaha by the Johnson brothers.