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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
Hughes brought the manuscript to his hotel room and spent an evening examining it. “At times that night as I read, I could not keep from laughing out loud, to the astonishment of my two roommates, lying at that moment half asleep in their beds, dreaming about being movie actors.” He laughed until he cried. “I was crying because the writer meant well, but knew so little about his subject and the result was a pathetic hodgepodge of good intentions and faulty facts.”
Black and White bore no resemblance to the sweeping account of black American history that everyone had expected. The screenplay focused on a fictitious struggle by black steel-workers in Birmingham, Alabama, to organize a union, wrest power from their corrupt white bosses, and join forces with their similarly oppressed white co-workers. To Hughes the plot was “the kind of fantasy that any European merely reading cursorily about the race problem in America, but knowing nothing of it at first hand, might easily conjure up.”
Hughes was dumbfounded by a scene in which the son of the rich white factory owner seduces a comely black maid at a party. “Honey, put down your tray; come, let’s dance,” he tells her. “In Russia, old Russia of the Tsars,” wrote Hughes, ”… master and maid quite naturally might dance together in public without much being made of it. But never in Birmingham, if the master is white and the maid colored.”
The film’s climax reached even further. After the desperate capitalists ignite a race riot between the factory’s black and white laborers, blacks use a radio station to transmit a plea for help. White union men of the North turn out en masse to assist their black brethren, and soldiers of the Red Army even manage to join the rescue. “It would have looked wonderful on the screen,” Hughes lamented, “so well do the Russians handle crowds in films. … But it just couldn’t be true. It was not even plausible fantasy.”
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.” He would refrain from telling others in the cast about the script’s inanity, but he refused to attempt its salvage. Karl Junghans, however, agreed to take on the job.
Eager to start directing, Junghans groped for ways to get the project rolling. To play the role of a white labor organizer who oversees the steelworkers’ efforts to unionize, the German hired one of the most eccentric of all the American expatriates in Moscow, John Bovington, a dancer and nudist who had arrived in Russia in the mid-1920s. Like Isadora Duncan, Bovington sought artistic freedom for his style of interpretive dance, which involved stylized movements and flowing gestures. Russian authorities, however, liked his preference for nude dancing no more than had their American counterparts, so Bovington often performed in a Greek tunic. The Black and White cast instantly pronounced him unfit for his assignment; of Bovington’s first appearance before the group, Hughes dryly noted, “We did not think he looked like a labor organizer.”
In an unofficial protest, Col. Hugh L. Cooper, the head of the U.S.-led Dneprostoy Dam project, warned that making Black and White might delay America’s diplomatic recognition of the Stalinist Soviet regime.
When the actor originally chosen for the part of the lynching victim proved impossibly amateur, Poston was selected instead. One of the Communist faction in the cast protested: “What has Ted Poston done for the class struggle that he should have the honor of being lynched?” Another problem arose when Junghans tried to rehearse the group for scenes that called for the steelworkers to sing “All God’s Chillun Got Wings,” “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?,” and other traditional spirituals and work songs. Junghans and the Soviets had assumed that all American blacks knew such music. But as predominantly urban Northerners, most of the cast had encountered these tunes only in concert halls, if at all.
“The first rehearsal of the music was funnier than anything in the script,” Hughes wrote, and the group’s trouble in navigating the rhythms and hitting the correct notes “failed to fool even a European.” Sylvia Garner’s trained voice cheered Junghans somewhat, but Hughes observed that the director still “nearly became a nervous wreck” by the rehearsal’s end.
Anxiety spread to members of the cast as days passed without a shooting script. Despite Louise Thompson’s pleas to maintain decorum, some of the Americans passionately pursued Russians, allowed Russians to fight over them, and partied nonstop. The tension turned to tragedy when one of the American women, despondent over a romance gone awry, attempted suicide in her Grand Hotel room by drinking a solution of potassium formaldehyde. After “she screamed so loud that everybody in the hotel came running,” Hughes recalled, she recovered in a hospital.