Grindhouse Classics : “The Black Klansman”

Posted: January 6, 2012 in movies
Tags: , , , , , , ,

First off, let me wish a very happy 2012 to any and all TFG readers — I hope the new year finds you healthy, wealthy, and wise (or any combination thereof, really), and I guess there’s nothing for us to do now but kick back for the next 365 days (well, okay, 359 and counting as I write this) and see if the Mayans had it right after all. Actually, though, perusing much of the hysteria surrounding this, our latest potential apocalypse, I find a lot of people hedging their bets well in advance — the so-called “New Age” set, particularly, seems rather enthralled with this whole notion that 2012 marks not the end, but rather some kind of (frustratingly, truth be told) vague new beginning. They say a “global consciousness transformation” or somesuch is about to take place, and frankly I hope they’re right because, let’s not kid ourselves, as a species we sure could use one.

All of which brings us, in a rather roundabout (my nice way of saying completely forced) way to the subject of today’s cinematic missive, 1966’s wannabe-lurid The Black Klansman (also marketed under the blatantly sexualized title of I Crossed The Color Line in various parts of the country, most notably southern drive-ins, the alternate poster showing the white girlfriend of the light-skinned supposedly “black” star of the film in her underwear, playing up the “mixed-race relationship” then-taboo even though it hasn’t got much to do with the film itself and crossing the color line refers much more specifically in the context of this flick to the protagonist’s act of going undercover (no pun intended) as a white guy to infiltrate the KKK — but more on that in a minute) , a collaboration between veteran exploitation producer Joe Solomon and soon-to-be-veteran exploitation director (as well as unabashed polygamist) Ted V. Mikels. ‘Cuz let’s face it, folks — as backward-ass and hopelessly (perhaps irredeemably) fucked as the overall state of human consciousness is today, back in ’66 it was a whole lot worse.

Anyway, this is typical “ripped from the headlines” (the headlines of the time, mind you) stuff — extremely light-skinned black man Jerry Ellsworth (Richard Gilden — who is, in actuality, white) lives a hip, bohemian lifestyle as a newspaper photographer/part-time jazz musician in Los Angeles. He’s so cool that he’s even got, as mentioned previously, a liberated white chick for a girlfriend. But in the midst of all the riots and disruption in America, it’s fair to say that Jerry’s one conflicted cat — he’s got no beef with whitey out west, and fits into “The Man”‘s scene pretty well. But deep down inside he knows his people are still getting a pretty raw deal down south, and he isn’t doing anything to help out in the struggle. All that’s about to change, though, when Jerry gets a phone call from his mama back home in Alabama informing him that his little girl, who he left with her to raise after his wife died so he could go be a cool swingin’ single out in la-la land on his own, was killed when the local yokels from the Klan firebombed their church (and yes, this film breaks the “don’t show the kid getting killed onscreen” bugaboo). Suddenly Jerry snaps. He tosses his white girlfriend out of bed and even tries to strangle her before regaining his senses and deciding to channel his rage in a positive direction. Why kill a white girl who likes you when all you have to do is straighten your hair, go back home, join the Klan, and bring all those no-good mothers down?

And that’s pretty much the whole setup in a nutshell — out guy Jerry passes for white, ingratiates himself with the local KKK leader by promising him money to set up a new California chapter (there’s a brief allusion to internecine Klan politics and the “struggle” of independent klans vs. their national organization, but whatever), and hatches his master plan to break up their network of mayhem and evil from within. There’s a little bit of “tension” when Jerry’s girlfriend and best buddy show up in his hometown to find him, and when some Nation Of Islam-types from new York come down to organize the local black community (Mikels and co. are definitely more sympathetic to MLK’s approach to racial reconciliation than to Malcolm X’s), but you never really get the sense that anything’s going to pose to great a threat to his end goal of bringing the men who killed his daughter to justice.

All in all, though, simple as it is, The Black Klansman is a pretty dent little piece of milquetoast confrontationalism. Sure, it can’t live up to its own self-imposed hype (it’s hardly “the most shattering film of our time!,” and it was shot in and around Riverside, California rather than”filmed in complete secrecy in the deep south!”), but that’s part of the charm with these second-and third-billed drive-in efforts, as is the atrocious (and I do mean atrocious — everyone in this film is lousy) acting,unconvincing day-for-night continuity, etc. Go with the flow or go home, as they say. And hey, while the film doesn’t look particularly gutsy now, when there’s little, if any, doubt about who was on the right and wrong side of the whole civil rights struggle (and there should be none), the fact remains that at the time making a movie like this did take a certain amount of balls (though not as much as Solomon and his ad-men would lead you to believe), even if its ultimate aim had more to do with making a buck than it did to contributing to the social consciousness.

The Black Klansman was finally released on DVD from Code Red (who else?) a couple months back in a pleasing little tongue-in-cheek package (check out the main menu screen to see what I mean) that includes a very sharp remastered 1.85:1 telecine transfer from the original camera negatives, two full-length commentary tracks (one with the always-engaging Ted V. Mikels, the other with makeup artist Byrd Holland), and on-camera interview with star Gilden, the original theatrical trailer as well as the usual assemblage of trailers for other Code Red titles, alternate opening credits featuring the I Crossed The Color Line title, and a bogus non-feature on “white people who act black.” Overall, it’s a more- than- satisfying release for a surprisingly more-than-satisfying film. Take that, you no-good crackers!

  1. Reblogged this on sixdegreesofstoogeration and commented:
    March Madness & Movie Mayhem, Day 30 goes where no film has gone before…and yes, that’s a terrible set up for a William Shatner “The Intruder” joke. But yes, Corman and Shatner did it first, yet Mikels probably made way more money.

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