- Historic Sites
Black And White And Red
In 1932 the Communist International paid to send a cast of American blacks to Moscow to make a movie about American racial injustice. The scheme backfired.
May/June 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 3
Curious about life and racial attitudes in the Soviet Union, Hughes agreed to go. Meanwhile, other adventurous souls prepared to make the trip. Dorothy West, a twenty-five-year-old aspiring writer in Harlem, learned of Black and White while volunteering as an envelope addresser in the offices of the Fellowship of Youth and Peace Reconciliation. Frank C. Montero, a student at Howard University, heard about Black and White from faculty members. “I was a smart-aleck radical from New York,” he recently recalled. “I learned about the movie and talked my parents into giving me the money to go.”
In early June, Langston Hughes wrapped up a nine-month cross-country lecture tour in California and set out by car for New York City, where the German liner Europa was scheduled to depart with the entire Black and White group at midnight on June 14. From Yuma on June 6 he wired Louise Thompson HOLD THAT BOAT, CAUSE ITS AN ARK TO ME. Thompson nearly had to take him at his word and try to delay the Europa’s anchor raising. The author, hauling such essential items as a Victrola, a box of jazz and blues records, and his typewriter, made it to the dock with only minutes to spare: “The ship’s gangplank was already two feet in the air when I reached it. They lowered it to let me aboard.”
Hughes had enlisted as the polisher of Mezhrabpom’s screenplay for Black and White, but his twenty-one traveling companions owed their presence aboard ship to their willingness to act before the camera. Few could claim any prior experience. Sylvia Garner, an accomplished singer, had appeared in a supporting role in the black stage drama Scarlet Sister Mary; Wayland Rudd held theater credits from Porgy and Bess and a few Eugene O’Neill plays. Hughes called them “the only really mature people in our group, everyone else being well under thirty and some hardly out of their teens.”
Frank Montero, at nineteen the youngest member of the cast, saw problems early on. “It was not a group that should have ever been picked to go,” he said, “from the point of view of acting anyway.” Nor was diversity the group’s strength. Although a New York Times article claimed that cast members had been picked “to represent a cross-section of Negro life in this country,” in fact, the twenty-two were overwhelmingly white-collar.
Their leader, Louise Thompson, was a labor researcher; Mildred Jones, who would turn many heads in Russia, an art student; Alan McKenzie, a salesman; Loren Miller, Henry Lee Moon, and Theodore Poston, writers; Homer Smith, a postal clerk; Lawrence Alberga, an agricultural laborer; Matthew Crawford, an insurance clerk; and Lloyd Patterson, a paperhanger and house painter. Others were attending college or held jobs as social workers.
Of them all, only Alan McKenzie was a member of the U.S. Communist party “The political splits were obvious,” Montero remembered, “There were all kinds of differences of opinion.” On board the Europa an early dispute arose over whether the group should send a cable to support the defense of the Scottsboro Boys, imprisoned the previous year in Alabama for allegedly raping two white women. The proposal was voted down, but political disagreements continued to erupt.
Housed in the Europa’s third-class cabins, the travelers studied the Russian language and Soviet history, lounged on deck, danced, and played cards. They couldn’t memorize lines from Black and White, though, because as Hughes later recalled, “no one had seen the scenario, or even knew the story. But that worried none of us. It was fun to be traveling.”
After eight days at sea the Europa reached Bremerhaven. Members of the Black and White cast took a train to Berlin, where, to their dismay, they discovered that the Soviet consul knew nothing of the movie and had neither work contracts nor visas for them. During the time it took to untangle this complications, the group received a heady introduction to the temptations of Berlin. “I put a coin into what I thought was a candy-bar machine, but a package of prophylactics came out instead,” Hughes wrote. In a Turkish coffeehouse they encountered a black waiter wearing a red fez, velvet trousers, and an embroidered jacket, who asked: “Say, what’s doing on Lenox Avenue?”