By Right of Birth (1921)
Only a fragment of this feature survives today, and it isn’t much to judge the whole by. It was produced by the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, the first production company owned and operated by African Americans, which makes it an important piece of history nonetheless.
The footage consists of a few disconnected scenes, most of which are themselves incomplete. The first shows a young woman sitting on the steps, reading a letter from a boyfriend who is away at war – she suspects him of “flirting with some chili queen” according to the intertitles. Another snippet shows a man offering to do “detective work” for another man in an office (the second man is either white or quite pale-skinned, it’s hard to tell). We then see the first man on a country road with a false mustache and a telegram-delivery man’s hat on his head. He complains that his “dogs are sure hot,” and we see smoke rising from his feet in an insert shot. The next scene is somewhat more complete, and involves a young woman being thrown from a horse, which is then recovered by a nearby fisherman, who we learn is named Jones. They don’t speak much, but we get a sense of a spark of romance between the two, and of the class distance that separates them. Then we see a white man on the phone with a white woman (possibly his wife?). The intertitle tells us they are conspiring to get a lease from “a girl,” tricking her into giving her signature. Another scene shows us a note which proves that they have gotten the wrong girl’s signature later on. A mother and two daughters are shown reading an eviction note. The mother appears to be signing over her life insurance when the young girl from the riding scene comes into the office, and they obviously recognize one another, though they are surprised to meet. She introduces her as “Mother” Agnes to the attorney, her father, who thanks her for helping his daughter. A white man walks into the room, and that’s all the footage we have.
Watching this, it’s hard not to try to guess what the rest of the story looked like. Because it’s the longest piece, I kind of want the story between Jones and the riding girl to be at the center of the story, but it seems to involve some kind of real estate scam, possibly against the horseback rider, and Jones doesn’t seem to come back into it again. I’m also unclear about the “detective” – was he also out looking for the girl no one can find? Who for? Was he on the side of the scammers, or some kind of good guy? The title makes me suspect that this is one of those stories, common in the early twentieth century, in which a poor girl discovers that she is actually an heiress, who has been raised in secrecy and without any knowledge of her status and now must claim her title in order to get what she deserves. But that is no more than a guess.
With so little to judge from, it’s hard to make any clear statements about the value of the Lincoln Motion Pictue Company and its artists. Certainly everything here is in focus and logically edited. It’s framed reasonably well, not relying on stagey standards and proscenium sets, and the camera operator is comfortable using close-ups. It seems like every shot has an intertitle, which seems like a lot of titles for the time, but that may just be because the titles happen to be what survived. Having the titles does give us a bit more information about what’s going on than we would get without them. The detective serves as comedy relief, but avoids the more flagrant stereotypes of Black humor we saw in the works of the Ebony Film Company, at least in these scenes. In this movie, it seems as if African Americans move in all levels of society – from a poor old mother, to an attorney and his daughter, to whatever dubious status the detective may have (is he really a delivery boy or is that just a disguise?), to a man who fishes in a stream (is this his profession or just recreation for him?). They do not live in an all-Black world, and the whites we see seem to plot and scheme against them. It would be great if someday the rest of this film is recovered.
Director: Harry Gant
Camera: Harry Gant
Starring: Clarence Brooks, Anita Thompson, Lew Meehan
Run Time: About 4 Min (surviving)
You can watch it (what there is): here.