- 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
The group obviously needed a change of scenery, and Mezhrabpom officials, stalled by the script problems and a sudden opposition to the project among high figures in the Soviet government, wanted the Black and White cast far from Moscow. Meanwhile, an unofficial American protest against the movie had been registered in person to Premier V. M. Molotov by Col. Hugh L. Cooper, the head of the U.S.-led Dneprostoy Dam construction project. Said to be the only American with direct access to Joseph Stalin, Cooper warned that the production of Black and White, or any other movie interfering with the internal affairs of the United States, could delay U.S. diplomatic recognition of the Soviet regime.
On August 3 twenty members of the cast found themselves aboard a train heading south toward Odessa and the Black Sea; Henry Lee Moon and Leonard Hill, both ill, remained in Moscow. Mezhrabpom officials called the trip a vacation; but the vacationers were restive. On the deck of a cruise ship touring Sevastopol, Yalta, and other Black Sea ports, some of the Americans, citing Colonel Cooper’s protest, openly denounced Stalin and voiced suspicions that the Russians had already killed the film. Hughes, Alan McKenzie, Louise Thompson, and Loren Miller tried to give the Soviets the benefit of the doubt.
Quartered in Odessa’s luxurious Londres Hotel, close to the ocean, some in the group remained rebellious. “Daddy Long Legs” Poston, Thurston Lewis, and other members defied local custom to swim nude at the beach. As a result, Hughes wrote, “thousands of astonished citizens from all over the Soviet Union, dressed in their best bathing suits, would suddenly see streaking down the Odessa sands a dark amazon pursued by two or three of the darkest, tallest and most giraffe-like males they had ever seen—all as naked as birds and as frolicsome as Virginia hounds, diving like porpoises into the surf, or playing leapfrog nude all over the place.”
The biggest splash, though, came with the sudden arrival in Odessa of Henry Lee Moon, from his Moscow sickbed. Brandishing a copy of the August 12 European edition of the New York Herald Tribune , the normally gentle Moon pointed to an article headlined SOVIET CALLS OFF FILM ON U.S. NEGROES: FEAR OF AMERICAN REACTION IS CAUSE. “Comrades!” he bellowed. “We’ve been screwed!”
“No Negroes went bathing on the Odessa beaches that day,” Hughes wrote. “Instead, hell broke loose.” Boris Babitsky, a Mezhrabpom representative who quickly traveled to Odessa to calm the Americans, received a verbal pelting from the cast as he listed his firm’s reasons for canceling the production of Black and White: the poor script (Junghans’s rewrite had been rejected), the shortcomings of certain members of the cast, and inadequate technical capabilities to complete the film. When Moon refused to be quiet, Babitsky managed to impose a moment of astonished silence by saying, “You wouldn’t dare to speak like this in the state of Mississippi.” Moon found a superbly disingenuous reply: “Must we be afraid then to speak the truth in the Soviet Union, Comrade?”
Seventeen days after its departure from Moscow, the Black and White band returned from its “holiday,” determined to appeal the film’s demise. The group soon discovered the comfortable days in the Grand had ended; Mezhrabpom assigned the Americans rooms in the third-class Mininskaya Hotel. Lacking private bathrooms, the Mininskaya, an overnight stopping place for provincial bureaucrats, “was more of a flophouse than a hotel,” Homer Smith wrote, “and only added more heat to the pent-up anger of the group.”
As the Americans vented their rage in disputes over the best way to petition for the restoration of their seemingly defunct movie careers, the political lines drawn aboard the Europa reappeared. Those inclined toward the left—now a majority, led by McKenzie, Thompson, Miller, and Hughes—stressed the public relations damage the Soviet Union would suffer in black America when news of the film’s cancellation broke. An opposing faction, with Moon, Poston, and Thurston Lewis as its chief spokesmen, wanted a face-to-face meeting with Stalin and the chance to denounce him.
The group settled on a compromise in which a committee representing both viewpoints met with the Comintern. “There we were received by several old Bolsheviks sitting at a long table in a gloomy room,” Hughes recalled. The Russians listened to the Americans. “Gravely, we were thanked for our statements, and told that the Comintern would take the whole matter under immediate consideration and give it the most serious attention.” Black and White thus received a mannerly Soviet burial.