May/June 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 3
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.
In 1932, while Scarface, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Shanghai Express filled the screens of movie theaters across America, another film, for which entertainment was only a secondary goal, was germinating far away from Hollywood. “The American Negro has never been portrayed on screen or stage in his true character,” wrote the black activist W. A. Domingo, “and this film … will be the first departure from the traditional pattern. It will trace the development of the Negro people in America, their work, their play, their progress, their difficulties—devoid of sentimentality as well as of buffoonery.”
Many in the black literary community shared these high expectations for the movie, which was to be called Black and White and had been thought up and financed by European Communists. As early as the 1860s, just after the end of the Civil War, the first Communist International Congress had shown its interest in America’s blacks by praising the abolition of slavery and exhorting whites in the United States to “declare your fellow citizens from this day forth free and equal, without reserve.” A half-century later Lenin wrote of the grim conditions blacks suffered in the American South and categorized them as an oppressed people.
In 1919, however, no black delegates were present at the founding convention of the Communist party of the United States. During the first half of the 1920s, in fact, neither the party nor the Comintern—the Soviet-dominated confederation of international communism—devoted much energy to American racial problems. This changed at the Sixth World Congress in 1928, when the Comintern issued a doctrine proclaiming that Southern blacks deserved the right to self-determination.
From this assertion—advanced almost exclusively by Europeans—sprang a bizarre idea for a new nation carved from American territory: the Black Republic of the South, which would include parts of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. American Communist party leaders embraced the notion of a separate black American republic with less enthusiasm than their European counterparts, fearing it encouraged institutionalized segregation of the races. And the idea raised little interest among blacks, only about a thousand of whom had joined the party at the time.
American Communists worked to boost black party membership throughout much of the 1930s. When the party sought to extend its influence to black industrial workers, the Comintern offered to underwrite the production of Black and White. The movie would eventually be shown around the world, wrote Homer Smith, one of the twenty-two Black and White cast members, “especially in the colored countries of Asia and Africa, as ‘documentary’ proof of the manner in which capitalist America discriminated against and oppressed its colored citizens.”
Mezhrabpom, the film-making company of the Worker’s International Relief organization in Berlin, took charge of the movie’s production. Early plans called for Russian actors in blackface and wigs to take the roles of black workers. “But this idea was soon dropped,” Smith wrote, “it being decided that such ersatz Negroes would prove neither convincing nor capable of providing the proper emotional intensity.” Instead, authentic black Americans were to fill the cast.
In the United States an interracial committee made up of W. A. Domingo, Malcolm Cowley, Rose McClendon, John Henry Hammond, Waldo Frank, Louise Thompson, and other social activists shouldered the burden of attracting recruits. The task was not easy; each cast member would have to come up with the money for his or her own passage to the U.S.S.R., making the opportunity less than appealing for experienced professional actors. Amateurs, drawn from the intellectual community, proved more enthusiastic. One of the committee’s first catches was a splendid one.
In March 1932 the thirty-year-old writer Langston Hughes heard from Louise Thompson, head of the committee’s search effort and an organizer of the Harlem chapter of Friends of the Soviet Union. Thompson described the movie project and urged Hughes to take part; as a celebrated poet, essayist, and playwright he was among the country’s most influential blacks. “I am sure,” wrote Thompson, “the whole plan would gain a remarkable stimulus if it were known that you were to be a member of the group.”
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?”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”