Black History

When Black Cinema Went Soviet

Black Panther is a 2018 American superhero film based on the Marvel Comics character of the same name.

Black Panther was one of the biggest grossing films of 2018 and was at the centre of award-season discussions. For many, it represents the promise of a commercially and artistically viable Black cinema at the heart of the Hollywood system. The struggle to establish a substantial Black presence in Hollywood, independent of white creative control and racial stereotyping, has been a long one. At some moments, it has seemed to Black film-makers that the best chance for a Black cinema lay outside Hollywood, beyond America, and on a political terrain that was explicitly anti-capitalist. For a distinguished group of African-Americans in 1932, the future of Black cinema was in the Soviet Union.

By the early 1930s, the Jazz Age had definitely come to an end, and the result of this cultural closure was often traumatic. Perhaps the most accomplished poet of the 1920s ‘Negro vogue’ was Langston Hughes, who began the 1930s with an emotionally and financially straining break with his wealthy white patron, Charlotte Osgood Mason. Hughes reacted to Mason’s repudiation in part by orienting himself to the revolutionary left, manifested in Communist Party USA (CPUSA)-aligned journals such as The New Masses.

An important part of the CPUSA’s appeal was its link with the Soviet Union, which had a substantial lustre for many across the world as an alternative economic model to the failing capitalist one. The USSR also held a special appeal to racially oppressed peoples for whom Soviet attacks on prejudice represented a powerful contrast with their own racist and colonial governments. In 1932, the Soviets sought to consolidate some of this sympathy by inviting a group of African-Americans to visit Russia to make a propaganda film about American racism. The film was to be titled ‘Black and White’.

Langston Hughes by Carl Van Vechten, 1936.

Forming a Co-Operating Committee for Production of a Soviet Film on Negro Life, the Communist organiser Louise Thompson recruited an impressive list of supporters to the cause of the movie. She soon contacted her friend Langston Hughes, asking him to join the expedition. Hughes enthusiastically accepted the invitation. He hurriedly departed from LA with two other members of the group in tow, firing off a telegram on the way that instructed Thompson to ‘hold that boat cause its an ark to me’.

By the time the group sailed for Europe, there were twenty-two people involved in the project, including Hughes, Thompson, their West Coast friends Loren Miller and Matt Crawford, the young writer Dorothy West, and the future Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ted Poston. Their arrival in the Soviet Union was greeted by a rendition of the proletarian anthem ‘The Internationale’, and Hughes scurried off the train to grab a handful of precious Soviet soil.

Dorothy West, c. 1935. Photograph by R. H. Macy and Company, Inc.

Over subsequent months, however, relations between the group and their hosts became more strained. The scenario for the film had been drafted by Europeans with little knowledge or understanding of American realities. As such, Hughes spent a great deal of time in meetings with officials from the film company, Meschrabpom, attempting to work the script into a realistic imagining of an interracial revolutionary movement in America.

With progress slow in Moscow, the group were dispatched to Odessa, a cosmopolitan city on the Black Sea. While there, the group learned that the film project had been cancelled due to the Soviet government’s concern to establish diplomatic relations with the US, which had been long delayed. The reality, hidden from the visitors at this stage, was that work on the film had halted  in large part because of a threat from American business to stop supplying materials for the building of the monumental Dnieprestroi Dam if the film was undertaken.

The news exacerbated existing tensions in the group and provoked a deep split. For some – ultimately a minority – the move signalled a terrible betrayal by the Communists and was evidence of irredeemable Soviet treachery. For the group that became the majority, faith remained in the Soviet commitment to resume work on ‘Black and White’ the following year. They were also disgusted at the propaganda stories being printed by the pro-capitalist press depicting them as impoverished prisoners of the Communists.

The minority soon left the country and despite striking a revolutionary tone in their condemnation of the Soviets, immediately indulged the anti-Communist press’ desire for rumour and slander. The rest of the group took different trajectories. Some settled in the Soviet Union permanently while others stayed for a tour of the country which included the Central Asian regions formerly subject to Jim Crow-type discrimination. Hughes took the opportunity to stay for an extended period in Central Asia and then Moscow before returning to the US via China, Japan, and Hawaii.

While a few emerged from the trip with anti-Communist feelings reaffirmed, for many of the participants it was an experience which strengthened their commitment to socialism. Louise Thompson continued her activism for many years after her return from the Soviet Union,  and was a prominent ally of her fellow Californian Communist Party member Angela Davis in the 1960s and 1970s. Loren Miller was closely aligned with the Communist left until 1938, and in subsequent decades he became a key civil rights lawyer. And Langston Hughes lectured widely and wrote profusely about the Soviet model and the promise of socialism as a solution to racial problems.

Black American communists. Cover image of Erik S. McDuffie’s Sojourning for Freedom (2011).

In 2018, though Black Panther captured the big money and carved a space for humane representations of Blackness in Hollywood, another Black-led film project exhibited some of the more radical possibilities envisioned by these Black Communists. Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You was distinguished not only by its outrageously imaginative plotline but by its clear anti-capitalist messaging and its faithful representation of working-class life.

Like the ‘Black and White’ project, Sorry to Bother You raises pertinent questions about the limits of Hollywood cinema, which even when radical in its representation is commodified in its form, and the importance of bridging gaps between working-class life and popular art. In 1932, the Soviet Union appeared to be providing such a bridge for Black artists. Given the failure of that project, new challenges and possibilities present themselves. If Riley’s film is a sign of broader trends, in 2019 as in 1932 the destiny of Black cinema may still be entangled with the health and vitality of socialist forces.

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