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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
Shortly after, eleven of the cast members accepted an invitation from the theatrical division of the Soviet Trade Union to go on an expenses-paid train trip through Soviet Asia before returning home. The more hostile contingent fired off an accusatory letter to Stalin, waited in vain for a reply, and in September left the U.S.S.R. for America. The departure was not uneventful. Arnold Rampersad, a biographer of Langston Hughes, relates that Sylvia Garner believed Thurston Lewis intended to leave the country without paying back money he owed her. When Lewis tried to collect funds for his trip home from Soviet officials, Garner demanded her share, and a quarrel broke out that “ended only when Garner whipped out a knife on the stunned Soviet paymaster, who at once saw the wisdom of her position.”
Upon their arrival in New York, members of the disaffected group publicly condemned the Soviets. The decision to cancel the production of the film, Henry Lee Moon said, was “a betrayal of the 12,000,000 Negroes of America and all the darker exploited colonial peoples of the world.” Although he and Ted Poston announced their plans to organize an American production of Black and White, the project never got off the ground.
Louise Thompson found it ironic that “Negroes, who, for the first time in their lives enjoyed complete equality in Soviet Russia, should walk into the trap of becoming the weapon against the Soviet Union of those capitalist forces that oppress them in America.” Calling the cancellation “something which occurs daily in Hollywood or other film centers,” Thompson claimed that “the difficulty was in [Mezhrabpom’s] sending for our group before the necessary preparations for the production of the picture had been completed in the Soviet Union.” The director, Karl Junghans, she wrote, “had declared that if work on the picture did not begin by August 15, it would have to be postponed until next year because of winter weather conditions.” Another attempt would be made to shoot the film during the summer of 1933, she predicted, with some of the same cast members and “the probable addition of others.” Like the plans to produce the film in America, this effort never materialized.
As soon as they stepped ashore in New York, some of the cast members began denouncing the Soviet “betrayal”; others promised that production would start anew the following summer.
Although most of the cast eventually returned home, several decided to stay on permanently in Moscow. Lloyd Patterson married a Russian artist, had three children, and died in the Soviet Union in the early 1940s. Wayland Rudd studied acting and directing in Moscow and attempted to use his American stage experience as a springboard for Soviet theater work but (as probably would have happened in the United States) found himself restricted to portrayals of exotic natives and such roles as Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He became a Soviet citizen and died sometime after 1959. With a Russian wife and two children, Homer Smith spent fourteen years in the U.S.S.R. before becoming dissatisfied with Stalinism and fleeing to Ethiopia; he returned to the United States in 1958.
High achievements marked the careers of other members of the group. Dorothy West went on to edit the literary journal Challenge, became a noted contributor to the Harlem literary renaissance, and wrote the well-received novel The Living Is Easy. Loren Miller became a distinguished Los Angeles attorney and wrote a popular book about the U.S. Supreme Court. Henry Lee Moon worked for many years with the National Urban League and was a lieutenant to Roy Wilkins. During World War II Ted Poston became a member of FDR’s unofficial “Negro cabinet”; later, at the New York Post, he was one of the country’s first black reporters to cover nonracial news.
When America extended diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union, on November 16, 1933, the treaty required the U.S.S.R. to “refrain from propaganda against the policies or social order of the United States.” Did the American State Department squelch Black and White? “As far as I know,” declared Frank Montero, who went on to serve as assistant executive director of the National Urban League, special assistant to Adlai Stevenson, and adviser to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, “it was never made because it was such a goddamn lousy movie.”