Louise Thompson and the Black and White Film

Louise Thompson Patterson in 1960 (German Federal Archives, Wikimedia Commons)

In 1932, James Ford returned from the Soviet Union with a letter from the Russian film company Meschrabpom saying it was interested in making a film about Black Americans. Louise Thompson was recruited to be in the film and to organize the trip overseas. It was an exciting opportunity for her, not only to travel overseas, but also to expand her political horizons. As her biographer Keith Gilyard argues, Thompson had been increasingly radicalized by her work on the Scottsboro case and she began to increase her involvement in the Communist Party (CPUSA). Additionally, while radical politics was becoming more central for her, she was “increasingly becoming important to radicalism.” Her future husband William Patterson had also recently returned from the USSR and he was now “redder than a rose.” Thompson was eager to visit the land of socialism.

Unfortunately, her mother was suffering from terminal cancer and Thompson was working for the Congregational Church’s Department of Social Relations. She did not think she could make the trip, but she managed to secure a 3 month leave of absence. an advance on her salary, and the help of a cousin to care for her mother. Thompson organized the Co-Operating Committee for Production of a Soviet Film on Negro Life with W.A. Domingo as its director. The group helped to recruit others to join including Thompson’s friend Langston Hughes. The delegate members had to pay their own fare to Russia, but the film company promised a monthly wage once they arrived. The delegation of 22 people left on June 1, 1932. Among the delegates were professional singers and actors, as well as journalists Ted Poston and Henry Lee Moon from the Amsterdam News. Thompson would reflect in her unpublished memoir that the delegation was leaving behind the America of the Scottsboro boys, a country that discriminated against its Black citizens, while its working class citizens struggled to feed their families. She hoped that the stories from the USSR were true, stories of a place without racial discrimination and poverty.

Upon arrival in Moscow, the delegation was split between hotels and in a home that the production company had bought for some of them to stay in. They signed contracts and were being paid, but the script was not completed when they arrived. Hughes helped with revising it, while the others worked on songs and explored Moscow. In letters to her mother, Thompson kept suggesting that the film production was being pushed off further, she began to suspect that it would take six and not the projected three months to complete. Meanwhile she explored the city and wrote that delegates were celebrated everywhere they went. She noticed that while the average Russian did not have all the trinkets Americans had, there seemed to be no sign of hunger or homelessness. Thompson wrote to her mother that she would regret having to return to the racist hostility in the United States.

The delegation traveled to Odessa in July in hopes that they could start filming but were met by a Meschrabpom representative that told them they were not ready with the script. Meanwhile relationships were getting strained, Thompson was particularly annoyed with some of the men, including Poston, who spent all their time chasing after women. The constant delays also led Moon and Poston to claim that the Russians had betrayed them. Joy Gleason Carew argues that some of these divisions emerged immediately on the trip to Russia. The Soviets’ intention with the film was to show the failure of American capitalism, specifically for Black Americans. It was motivated by interest in the Scottsboro case. On the ship, Hughes and Thompson wanted to send a message of solidarity to one of the Scottsboro boy’s mothers, but some of the delegates objected. Once in the USSR, these personality and political conflicts were exacerbated by the constant delays.

By late summer, Meschrabpom claimed that the film had to be postponed for months. Thompson remembered years later that the script needed to be reworked, but others wanted to keep it intact. This led to conflicts among the writers, including Hughes, who Carew argues found the script to be far off base from the Black American experience. Erick McDuffie notes that issues arose on the Soviet end too. The Soviets expected Black Americans to have a sense of class solidarity that did not exist. Additionally, they hoped the delegation would be dark-skinned and professional actors. Instead, there were few professionals, and they represented a range of skin tones; the Soviets were simply not familiar with Black America.

Thompson was most frustrated with Poston and Moon. Poston specifically because of his constant pursuit of women, which Thompson feared confirmed stereotypes of Black men’s licentiousness. Moon did not mingle with the rest of the delegation, when they returned from Odessa he narrowed in on the idea that the Soviets had betrayed them all because they sought American favor. Moon also disagreed with Thompson about the success of Soviet socialism. He argued that the Soviets had not eradicated poverty, they simply made the whole country live in poverty equally

Thompson worried that these charges would influence how Black Americans viewed the Soviet Union. She and Hughes brought their concerns before the Comintern (Communist International) the “highest governing body of the revolutionary movement.” The Comintern concluded that Meschrabpom had been inefficient and that they would investigate the debacle. The film company agreed to continue paying everyone through their contracted period as well as reimburse their travel funds. They also offered to fund a trip around the Soviet Union and pay for everyone’s return fare, whether they chose to leave immediately or stay for the tour. Poston and Moon chose to leave in September, and there was no love lost on Thompson’s part who decided to stay and take the tour with Hughes.

Poston and Moon did not even wait to arrive home before alerting the press to the debacle; they wired the Amsterdam News from Berlin. Their claims appeared in the Amsterdam News on October 5 and were widely reported. In it they insisted the Soviets abandoned the movie for fear they would “offend American sensibilities,” and “interfere” with the Soviet Union’s attempt to secure formal recognition from the United States. They claimed that “American capitalism” reached its long arms into the “Workers Republic” and urged the cancellation of the film.1 As Carew argues, Moon and Poston managed to get the press attention they had hoped for while Thompson, who tried to counter the reports, got little attention in mainstream sources. But according to Carew, the reporters were right. The Soviets did bend to the will of Americans as they sought to achieve formal recognition for the USSR, which it gained the following year.

Thompson had no obligation to return to her job until January 1933, and her mother insisted that she stay overseas. On September 20, 1932, the delegates who chose to stay started their tour of Central Asia starting in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Thompson took detailed notes of her tour, which included Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Ukraine. She wrote about the minority communities who had traditionally been exploited under Czarist regimes and their improved conditions. Though she did witness a trial of Muslim rebels in Uzbekistan. She also noted the improvement of women’s lives in some of the countries. After returning to Moscow, Thompson remained to witness the annual parade celebrating the anniversary of the revolution in November. She returned home shortly after and her mother’s health took a turn for the worse, she lived only three more months, dying in February 1933.

Not long after she returned the Amsterdam News ran an article on Thompson’s trip with the provocative title “Prefers Russian now to Living in America.” She told the reporter that Russia was the only place that she could ever forget that she was Black. Thompson claimed that Russians were shocked by their stories of segregation and women there were equal. Abortions were legal and birth control was readily available so that women did not have to turn to abortion in desperation. Despite the disappointment with the film, Thompson returned to the United States as red as William Patterson had. She left her job at the Congregational church and took a job with the International Labor Defense to devote her time and energy to the campaign for the Scottsboro boys. She also officially joined the CPUSA. Thompson would devote the remainder of her life to the Black Freedom Struggle. Whatever divisions and disagreements she experienced with the Black and White cast in the Soviet Union, she returned to the United States even more committed to a socialist America.2

  1. “Say Race Bias here Halted Soviet Film,” New York Times, 5 October 1932, 26; Henry Lee Moon and T.R. Poston, “American Prejudice Triumphs over Communism,” Amsterdam News, 5 October 1932, 1.
  2. “Prefers Russia now to Living in America,” Amsterdam News, November 23, 1932, 4.
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Denise Lynn

Dr. Denise Lynn is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Southern Indiana. Her research centers on women in the American Communist Party during the Popular Front. Follow her on Twitter @DeniseLynn13.

Comments on “Louise Thompson and the Black and White Film

  • All very true, a similar account of which appears in a Langston Hughes
    autobiography.

    Reply

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