Black And White And Red

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In 1932, while Scarface, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Shanghai Express filled the screens of movie theaters across America, another film, for which entertainment was only a secondary goal, was germinating far away from Hollywood. “The American Negro has never been portrayed on screen or stage in his true character,” wrote the black activist W. A. Domingo, “and this film … will be the first departure from the traditional pattern. It will trace the development of the Negro people in America, their work, their play, their progress, their difficulties—devoid of sentimentality as well as of buffoonery.”

Many in the black literary community shared these high expectations for the movie, which was to be called Black and White and had been thought up and financed by European Communists. As early as the 1860s, just after the end of the Civil War, the first Communist International Congress had shown its interest in America’s blacks by praising the abolition of slavery and exhorting whites in the United States to “declare your fellow citizens from this day forth free and equal, without reserve.” A half-century later Lenin wrote of the grim conditions blacks suffered in the American South and categorized them as an oppressed people.

Proclaiming the newcomers Negrochanski tovarish (Negro comrades), Muscovites led them to the head of long grocery lines, saved them seats on crowded buses, and invited them to countless parties.

In 1919, however, no black delegates were present at the founding convention of the Communist party of the United States. During the first half of the 1920s, in fact, neither the party nor the Comintern—the Soviet-dominated confederation of international communism—devoted much energy to American racial problems. This changed at the Sixth World Congress in 1928, when the Comintern issued a doctrine proclaiming that Southern blacks deserved the right to self-determination.

From this assertion—advanced almost exclusively by Europeans—sprang a bizarre idea for a new nation carved from American territory: the Black Republic of the South, which would include parts of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. American Communist party leaders embraced the notion of a separate black American republic with less enthusiasm than their European counterparts, fearing it encouraged institutionalized segregation of the races. And the idea raised little interest among blacks, only about a thousand of whom had joined the party at the time.

American Communists worked to boost black party membership throughout much of the 1930s. When the party sought to extend its influence to black industrial workers, the Comintern offered to underwrite the production of Black and White. The movie would eventually be shown around the world, wrote Homer Smith, one of the twenty-two Black and White cast members, “especially in the colored countries of Asia and Africa, as ‘documentary’ proof of the manner in which capitalist America discriminated against and oppressed its colored citizens.”

Mezhrabpom, the film-making company of the Worker’s International Relief organization in Berlin, took charge of the movie’s production. Early plans called for Russian actors in blackface and wigs to take the roles of black workers. “But this idea was soon dropped,” Smith wrote, “it being decided that such ersatz Negroes would prove neither convincing nor capable of providing the proper emotional intensity.” Instead, authentic black Americans were to fill the cast.

In the United States an interracial committee made up of W. A. Domingo, Malcolm Cowley, Rose McClendon, John Henry Hammond, Waldo Frank, Louise Thompson, and other social activists shouldered the burden of attracting recruits. The task was not easy; each cast member would have to come up with the money for his or her own passage to the U.S.S.R., making the opportunity less than appealing for experienced professional actors. Amateurs, drawn from the intellectual community, proved more enthusiastic. One of the committee’s first catches was a splendid one.

In March 1932 the thirty-year-old writer Langston Hughes heard from Louise Thompson, head of the committee’s search effort and an organizer of the Harlem chapter of Friends of the Soviet Union. Thompson described the movie project and urged Hughes to take part; as a celebrated poet, essayist, and playwright he was among the country’s most influential blacks. “I am sure,” wrote Thompson, “the whole plan would gain a remarkable stimulus if it were known that you were to be a member of the group.”