In his new PBS documentary, filmmaker Richard Wormser '55 reveals the vision and blindness of the American Communist Party.
By Robert Strauss • Photograph by Shayan Asgharnia
Richard Wormser ’55 knew that the dual legacy of the early members of the American Communist Party was fading as those who joined in the 1920s and 1930s were beginning to die. It was the late 1970s, and the documentary filmmaker had amassed enough in grant money to interview more than a dozen aging past and present party members.
“Some had known Stalin. Some even knew Lenin,” says Wormser. In the 1930s, they were all on the front lines of the struggle in America against racism and fascism and for labor unions. They were organizing workers in factories and blacks and whites together.
Wormser is sitting in a café at Fordham University, where he went to graduate school and now teaches courses on film.
In making American Reds, a 90-minute documentary that will air on the Public Broadcasting System this fall, he says, “I was interested in the story of the party as a story of vision and blindness. The people had a vision of creating — eventually — a completely alternate system to capitalism based upon socialism, where there would be equality, no discrimination,” says Wormser, wearing a jacket over a sweater, exuding the casual, elegant style of a college professor. “That was the vision. The blindness was the tyranny of Stalin.”
Most American Communists “didn’t know what was going on [in Russia during the purges of the Stalin regime]; what they heard, they thought was propaganda,” says Wormser. “After the revelations [of Stalin’s brutality] emerged in the 1950s, about 70 percent of the members just left in disgust.”
His interviews with members and former members of the party were videotaped in 1983 and are embedded in 35 hours of film. They form the core of American Reds. The footage had been sitting on a shelf for nearly 30 years, as Wormser sought grants to finish production. A $500,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2013 enabled him to finish the film. In awarding the grant, NEH evaluators lauded how the proposal told the story of the Communist Party within the contexts of the Great Depression and the Cold War. Evaluators praised the script’s balanced approach that avoided demonizing or romanticizing the party.
PBS commentator Bill Moyers has called American Reds “an important addition to public television’s mission to throw light on obscured corners of our history and on the forgotten people lost in the shadows.”
Wormser explains that working on American Reds for such a long period “gave me time to look at things in a different way and not make one of those historical docs about the way things once were. This film uses the past to illuminate the present. Whether the Communists had the answer or not is not the question. The problems the party faced are the problems we face today — exploitation in the workplace, racism and sexism, and great disparities in wealth.”
His way of looking at the world was first formed at Bucknell, Wormser says. Several sociology professors “made me aware of the wider world and how human beings devise imaginary solutions to real problems. They didn’t make me a filmmaker, but they inspired me to start seeing the world historically and socially.”
Wormser continued his studies through graduate school at Fordham but lacked a career direction. After graduate school, influenced by the romanticism of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, he hitchhiked around America working as a logger, dishwasher and fruit picker and eventually wound up in Paris. He began studying philosophy at the Sorbonne and met, and subsequently hung out with, the Beat Generation icons William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. His Ph.D. studies “went out the window” shortly thereafter, he says.
When he returned to the United States 14 months later, Wormser was not sure what he wanted to do. “The only thing I felt was that, to the best of my ability, I didn’t want to become a tool of the ruling classes.”
Wormser was fortunate to be offered a job as a writer/photographer by William Weist ’50, one of his former Bucknell professors, who had become the editor of a weekly newspaper in the central Pennsylvania coal town of Shamokin. His subjects, says Wormser, “have always been people whose voices were seldom heard in American society. In Shamokin, I didn’t have a clue what it was like to be a coal miner until I went down into the coal mines to write stories of the miners’ lives,” he says. “I drank beer with them and ate sausage with them and learned to play a card game called euchre.”
Wormser later wrote a story on mentally disabled children in a state institution. He eventually took a job there to learn about the lives of the men, women and children inside. His innate visual sense inspired him to create a documentary film on the subject, and he found a film crew to work with him. And so he began his life’s work. Hired by Bill Jersey, one of the founders of modern documentary film, Wormser learned the art and craft of both filmmaking and grant-proposal writing.
In the 1970s, Wormser accepted an assignment from a book company to work as a still photographer in the Arab world for a year. He lived in a Palestinian refugee camp, with a Bedouin community in the desert, on a family farm in Egypt and in the Golan Heights of Syria. His images captured stories of the daily lives of a cross-section of Arab peoples, men and women, young and old, political and nonpolitical, rural and urban. Wormser also began writing young-adult books about people whose lives most history textbooks generally omitted.
His most successful film before American Reds, he says, is the Peabody Award-winning four-part documentary series The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow, which appeared on PBS in 2002. The injustice and racism Wormser saw during his civil-rights activist days in the 1960s South inspired him to research “American apartheid.” Wormser wanted to illuminate an almost-forgotten time period in the African-American struggle for freedom from the end of the Civil War to the beginning of the civil-rights movement in the mid-1950s.
“The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow was challenging because while there was so much horrific violence against African-Americans, I didn’t want to make a holocaust film in which blacks were only shown as victims. I wanted to frame their struggle in a dialectic. Yes, there was oppression, but there was the struggle against oppression, and more oppression led to more struggle, and more struggle led to more violence — until the civil-rights movement finally erupted.”
The series continues to be distributed in schools, and Wormser is pleased that the story is not consigned to “the trash bin of history. Racism is tragically alive today. The film uses the past as a means to illuminate the present.”
Wormser is also pleased when middle schools show his films. “Many high-school students think they know everything about everything,” he says. “Middle school is where you can get kids to really think about issues.”
He feels American Reds will take the same road: examining a piece of history that remains vital today. Wormser says the radicals in the early days of the American Communist Party envisioned a utopian future. However, under Stalin, what transpired was not a utopia but a dystopian nightmare. Yet the struggles of American Communists for a better and more equitable world are the same struggles that racial minorities, immigrants, women and the unemployed continue to fight in America and elsewhere.
Wormser, 82, says he has projects in various stages of thinking, grant writing and preproduction that should last him at least another decade. He says he won’t retire “unless I get a grant to do so. When not filmmaking, I try to teach my students what I continue to learn from the great French writer Paul Valéry: ‘If you want to realize your dreams, the first thing you must do is wake up.’ ”