Appellate Judge Tom Becker's nights in white satin were nothing like this.
The Ku Klux Klan killed my little girl
It's the mid-'60s, and Jerry Ellsworth (Richard Gilden, The Corpse Grinders) is a light-skinned black man living in Los Angeles. Jerry's a musician, and because he's a light-skinned black man (a point that bears repeating) in a big city, he's able to enjoy life on both sides of the color line, which includes having a sultry white singer (Rima Kutner) as his lady.
Unfortunately, things are not so egalitarian in Turnerville, Alabama, Jerry's hometown. The newly passed Civil Rights Act has exacerbated tensions and made the racial divide even deeper, it seems. When a young black man goes to a "whites only" diner for a cup of coffee—greeted at the door by a particularly ugly "Keep Out" sign, complete with offensive slur—he inadvertently attracts the attention of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Later that night, the white-sheeted thugs lynch the man and firebomb a church, killing a little girl.
That little girl, it turns out, is Jerry's daughter. Vowing vengeance, he decides to use his light complexion to pass for white, return to Turnerville, and infiltrate the KKK. Mucking up Jerry's audacious if asinine scheme: the decision by the young black men of Turnerville to bring in an agitator from up north to stir things up; and the decision of Jerry's (white) girlfriend to trail him to this deep-fried hell-hole, with an even darker friend in tow.
Independent filmmakers have always been ahead of the curve compared to Hollywood in dealing with "hot-button" issues. While there have certainly been commendable efforts to deal with race in major studio productions—for instance, Pinky, The Defiant Ones, and in its glossy way, Ross Hunter's Imitation of Life—too often, mainstream films were made with an eye to homogenized controversy.
In the early to mid '60s, in the midst of the civil rights movement, the time of the March on Washington and passage of CRA64, Hollywood played its cards close to the vest while the indies tackled the issues head on. Sometimes, they'd produce a meaningful classic—Nothing But a Man, for instance; sometimes, an incisive drama—One Potato, Two Potato, for instance; sometimes, a well intended but overwrought bit of pap—Black Like Me, for instance.
And then, someone got the idea to produce The Black Klansman.
And the Klan will ride this night
Woof, is this ever a mess of exploitation madness. In the plus column, it's fair to say that this, truly, is a film Hollywood wouldn't dare make; the flip side, unfortunately, is that it looks like a film that was made on a dare—the losing end of a dare, like, "Make this hokey film about crossing the color line and infiltrating the KKK or run down Santa Monica Boulevard in your underwear," and body-image concerns prevailed over all other aspects of dignity.
Alternately (or perhaps originally) entitled I Crossed the Color Line, the film was marketed with full-on exploitation hysteria. The I Crossed the Color Line poster featured a shot of white actress Kutner in lingerie next to the headline, "This is Andrea…she had to have his love…even though her baby might be Black!" Below that, an "intimate" shot of Kutner and Gilden screamed out, "This is Jerry…He passed for white…to pierce the innermost secrets of the white mob…and his women!" Then, below the title, we're promised "A story packed with melodramatic action…with blood and sin…with treachery, sex, and murder!" If those exclamation points didn't grab you, then the trumpeting of film's release as The Black Klansman surely would: "The most shattering film of our time! Filmed in complete secrecy in the Deep South! Obsessed with hatred and revenge he rode with the Klan…even though his color could cost him his life!" If you needed any more convincing, the words, "AN ADULT FILM" were prominently displayed on both posters.
Produced by Joe Solomon, who also gave the world such "topical" 'sploiters as The Gay Deceivers, Simon, King of Witches, Hells Angels on Wheels, and This Is a Hijack, the film strikes an odd balance between sleazy and sincere. The horrors of the racially intolerant South, as depicted here, are too real, and tbe writers deserve some sort of props for setting this in the wake of the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Additionally, a scene at a Klan rally is pretty well handled.
But everything else is pure sensationalism—and badly done, at that. Jerry gets word about his daughter's grisly death while he's in bed with his (white) girlfriend, and flies into a rage against (white) people, beating the taters out of poor Andrea before concocting his plan. The plan itself is implemented by Jerry shaving off his weird goatee (that looks like a piece of charcoal shoved on his chin) and covering his modest 'fro with a wig that looks like it was made out of cake frosting.
Apparently, infiltrating the super-secret Klan is only slightly less difficult than infiltrating a Walmart on Black Friday (no pun intended)—within minutes of his arrival in Alabama, our undercover honky not only hooks up with the grand imperial something-or-other (the Exalted Cyclops, actually) of the local KKK but with Imperial's honey-eyed blonde daughter as well! If you're keeping score, that makes two interracial couplings, something that would have actually been controversial in 1966 had the film not cast a white actor playing a black man pretending to be a white man—the parameters are dizzying.
We also get a bizarre, race-espionage subplot featuring the northern agitator—overplayed into the stratosphere by Max Julien (The Mack)—that presents far too much skullduggery to be taken at all seriously and posits that the radicalized blacks have the same lack of compunction about slaughtering innocents as their dimwitted and bigotted white counterparts. We get beatings and shootings and hangings and cross burnings! A drunken white woman victimized by people of all races and creeds! Speeches and lectures and homilies! And more iterations of the "N-word" than you'll find on a Katt Williams tour!
On top of all this, there's a soundtrack that punctuates any moment resembling tension with the classic "da-DAAA" chord, and includes a lounge-pop theme song that that lays out the entire plot (for you audial learners) and bores itself into your head like an earwig (yeah, I know, that's an urban legend, but that Night Gallery episode really stayed with me).
Why can't they learn
See? I just can't get it out of my head.
This release from Code Red is nothing short of brilliant. I've read some online rumors that they might be closing down in the near future, and it would be a shame if this were true. It's rare to find a DVD company that appreciates these sorts of films and seems to have "fun" putting out its releases the way Code Red does. Even though pretty much everything Code Red puts out is niche, there's no sense that these are just crap films being dumped to turn a buck.
As packaged by Code Red, watching The Black Klansman is less like discovering a long-lost, misguided, hideously cheesy exploitation film and more like discovering a long-lost, misguided, hideously cheesy event. This is a Code Red release with all the bells and whistles—as only Code Red can serve them up.
The transfer is surprisingly clean for a cheap-o '60s film, with minimal print damage and OK contrast. Yeah, it's soft in some spots and unstable in others, but do we really expect anything less—or anything more—from our exploitation predecessors? The audio is reasonably clear, with very little hissing or distortion.
After a cute menu screen that gives us the option to "Stick it to da man!" (that is, watch the film), we dive into a satisfying cache of supplements.
• "Infiltrate the Klan"—a commentary with director Ted V. Mikels, whom you might know as the brains behind such low-rent classics as Blood Orgy of the She Devils and The Astro-Zombies. Mikels is certainly enthusiastic about this project, providing a lively and endearing track.
• "White Man Jive"—a second (!!) commentary, this one with Byrd Holland, who not only did the make up for The Black Klansman but also appeared in a small role; sitting in is Code Red's Lee Christian; this one's another fun listen.
• "Blacks Like Me"—A recent interview with (white) actor Richard Gilden.
• "A Documentary on White People Who Act Black"—I'll admit, I was looking forward to this one; the title certainly promises goofy fun. So imagine my utter dismay when I pressed the Play button and this appeared on my screen:
We licensed this documentary but the rights owner changed his mind even with a valid contract he chose to not lend us his master tape. The Director has a vision of submitting this short for the oscars.
Oh, and [sic], in case you were blaming me for the atrocious punctuation errors.
Why leave this in? Why not just re-do the menu and scrap the whole entry? Because this is Code Red.
• Alternate Opening Credits—The version we're watching on the disc is actually I Crossed the Color Line, with the credits (and theme song) playing out against a gray background, like a '50s TV show; the alternate sequence gives the title as The Black Klansman and uses some of the Klan shenanigans from the film as its visual.
We also get the film's trailer, plus some additional trailers from Code Red Blaxploitation releases, ignoring the fact that The Black Klansman doesn't really fit the definition of "Blaxploitation." Trailers featured here are for The Black Gesetapo, Mean Johnny Barrows, and Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde, the last one vaulting up in the ranks of all-time greats: It's two-and-a-half minutes of Robert Louis Stevenson-based ludicrosity updated to an "urban" setting and narrated by some jive talkin' homie—in rhymes! "His victim/thinks she's tricked 'im/But she hasn't a prayer/when he leaps through the air!" It's like an embryonic rap video that the whole family can enjoy.
My life will not be complete
OK, I'll stop now.
The Black Klansman might be a wretched, lurid, and uncomfortably laughable pile of socioploitation, but it's a great release from Code Red. It gets a high recommend and a not guilty from me.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Code Red
• Alternate Opening
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