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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
The morning after he read the script, Hughes returned to the Mezhrabpom officials to tell them that the scenario was absurdly plotted and “so mistakenly conceived that it was beyond revision.”
It took two days to cut the red tape. With visas in hand (but no contracts) the Americans proceeded to Finland, where they boarded a train for Moscow. A spirited welcome finally awaited them when they rolled into Nikolayevsky Station on June 26. They were, after all, long-awaited representatives of the vast black American working class, and they endured a gantlet of handshakes, a round of emotional greetings, and a fusillade of flashbulbs before climbing into Buicks that carried them on to the Grand, a stylish old hotel standing a block from Red Square and the Kremlin.
The accommodations were fine. So too—when they at last appeared—were their contracts with Mezhrabpom. Twenty-one of the Americans received a guarantee of four hundred rubles for each of the next four months, living quarters, one meal per day, ration books for extra groceries, and a reimbursement for their transatlantic passage. Hughes, as the troupe’s writer, collected more—”about a hundred times a week as much as I had ever made anywhere else.”
The visitors received royal treatment in Moscow. Proclaiming the newcomers Negrochanski tovarish (Negro comrades), Muscovites led them to the head of grocery lines, saved them seats on crowded buses, and invited them to countless parties. Naturally the U.S.S.R. had faults, but they were easily overlooked. “Quite truthfully, there was no toilet paper. And no Jim Crow,” Hughes commented.
“Unconsciously I have lost that depressing subconsciousness of being a Negro,” Matthew Crawford wrote home, “[and] the ever-present thought that my dark skin must circumscribe my activities at all times. I was a bit surprised how absolutely normal my moving about the Russian people has become.”
Though seemingly tolerant, the Soviets did carry racial preconceptions. They had anticipated, for instance, that the skins of their American actors would be universally pitch black. “We have had to argue at great lengths to tell them we are all Negroes,” Louise Thompson wrote. “In appearance, ours was a very mixed group of people,” Frank Montero said, “from Wayland Rudd, who was as black as Paul Robeson, to a person like myself, who could be regarded as Hispanic.” Homer Smith, describing the color range of the group as “dark brown to high yellow,” reported that the variation in tints greatly disturbed one Mezhrabpom official. “We needed genuine Negroes and they sent us a bunch of metisi [mixed bloods],” the Russian complained.
The Americans, too, needed to adjust. For one thing, many of them grew to dislike the limited repertoire of the Grand Hotel’s kitchen. “Day after day this consisted of weak Russian borscht, some Irish potatoes, cabbage and black bread,” Homer Smith recalled. “No pork chops, no chicken, no ham and eggs, no butter. It didn’t take long for the quiet grumbling to reach overwhelmingly vocal proportions. … The Negroes might have staged a strike, in spite of the fact that strikes were banned in Russia.”
Any attempted work stoppage, of course, would have overlooked the conspicuous absence of work to be stopped. Idle days passed; the Black and White cast still had no script to study. The Americans did have the chance to meet the director of their film, a German named Karl Junghans, but their interviews with him inspired little confidence.
Mezhrabpom had apparently hired Junghans on the basis of his eagerness to undertake the project and his experience with black Africans while directing the film Strange Birds of Africa, an anti-imperialist documentary. Dynamic and robust, he knew nothing of America and little of the English language. “He was young and ambitious,” Hughes remembered. “This was to have been his great opportunity.”
With workless days and nights the Americans filled their time with romance and socializing. “I had a good social life. I enjoyed myself,” Frank Montero recalled. The lanky Ted Poston’s fervid dancing in the nightclub at the Hotel Metropol earned him the nickname Daddy Long Legs. Many of the women in the group were pursued by Russian suitors, and Mildred Jones of New York City won the heart of an official in the Soviet Foreign Affairs Commissariat. “While boating on the Moscow River, under the crenelated walls of the Kremlin,” Homer Smith remembered, “one of the more ardent members of the group and his Russian girl friend became so engrossed with each other that they failed to notice that their leaky skiff was sinking. Friendly Russians dragged them out of the water.”
After the Americans had been in Moscow for weeks, officials called Hughes to the Mezhrabpom studios to receive the English translation of the screenplay. With the help of Lovett Forte-Whiteman, an early Communist party member who would disappear during the Stalinist purges, a Soviet writer had crafted the scenario, and the work had won the Comintern’s approval.