Clarence Brooks


Clarence Brooks 2

Clarence Brooks was born in San Antonio, Texas in December 1896. In 1915, Brooks along with actor Noble Johnson, Noble’s brother, George Johnson, Dr. James T. Smith, and Dudley A. Brooks formed The Lincoln Motion Picture Company, a company that sought to make films correcting distortions of African American images in motion pictures while also depicting the reality of African American life.  Brooks acted as secretary to the budding company, which quickly built a reputation for showcasing the talent of African American performers in three-dimensional roles. In 1916, Brooks made his acting debut in Lincoln’s short, The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition and in 1919, he played the lead in A Man’s Duty.

By 1921 The Lincoln Company had completed five films, but it proved to be a marginal operation. Noble Johnson, leading man and president of the company who helped support the studio by acting in other companies’ productions, was faced with an ultimatum from Hollywood studio Universal. They had found that when theaters showed a Lincoln film starring Johnson to Black audiences, the audience would not go to a nearby theater showing a Universal film featuring Johnson. He was forced to choose between working for Universal, with a promising career, or casting his lot with Lincoln, with slight chance for financial success. Johnson reluctantly resigned as an active member of the company, but retained his financial interest. Dr. James T. Smith then became president of Lincoln. Without Johnson at the helm, there was much uncertainty.  In addition the increased cost of movie making in the 1920s and the declining economy leading to the Great Depression forced most independent Black film producers out of business. The African American community did not have the financial resources, especially in hard times, to sustain independent Black film enterprises.  In 1923 operations of the Lincoln Motion Picture Company ended and the board of directors disbanded. But Brooks was determined to continue with his acting career as he was still interested in challenging racial stereotypes in film. In 1928, he played George Reed in Absent with Virgil Owens and Rosalie Lincoln.

Clarence Brooks 2In 1930 Brooks appeared in Georgia Rose with Irene Wilson, Evelyn Preer, and Spencer Williams and in 1931, he co-starred in Arrowsmith in which he portrayed a Howard University-educated doctor who Ronald Colman’s character encounters while testing a serum in an effort to find a cure for the bubonic plague. The film was nominated for Best Picture, and Brooks’s co-star was nominated for Best Actor, however Brooks was not nominated for his portrayal of an important supporting character vital to the story.  Afterwards, Brooks left acting behind until he was coaxed out of semi-retirement by director and independent film producer Oscar Micheaux. In 1935, he starred in Micheaux’s Murder In Harlem and found that he could continue his acting career in the films which gave him his start.  In race films he could at least play positive roles. In 1937, he played Larry Lee in Dark Manhattan and in 1938, he appeared in Spirit of Youth and Two-Gun Man from Harlem. In 1939, Brooks continued to work in independent films that supported his career philosophy with roles in The Bronze Buckaroo and Harlem Rides The Range.

Brooks continued working the race movie circuit, although the popularity of the genre was fading and the ability to challenge convention through film was becoming more difficult to achieve, as mainstream studios bought out the independent companies and made their own race films that appealed to prejudiced masses and sold out movie houses. In 1941, he appeared in one of the last race movies of the time, Up Jumped the Devil. Once the race movie era ended, Brooks did not work in films until 1946, when he reluctantly decided to turn back to acting to sustain himself and appeared as an uncredited valet in Blue Skies with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. In 1947, Brooks appeared as an uncredited Porter in Welcome Stranger.

The 1950s saw the end of Brooks’ film career. In 1951, he appeared in his last movie, portraying Sunga in Bowanga Bowanga. Brooks walked away from show business entirely after that and in March 1969 died of natural causes in Pasadena, California.

Wild Women a/k/a Bowanga Bowanga (1951)
Rock Island Trail (1950)
Welcome Stranger (1947)
Blue Skies (1946)
Up Jumped the Devil (1941)
Broken Strings (1940)
Am I Guilty? (1940)
Bad Boy (1939)
Harlem Rides the Range (1939)
The Bronze Buckaroo (1939)
Two-Gun Man from Harlem (1938)
Spirit of Youth (1938)
Dark Manhattan (1937)
Murder in Harlem (1935)
Arrowsmith (1931)
Georgia Rose (1930)
Absent (1928)
By Right of Birth (1921)
A Man’s Duty (1919)
The Law of Nature (1917)

Source: TCM Classic Film Union Blog; Hollywood Heritage.  Photo source(s):  Hollywood Heritage, Modern Times.