Monday, September 10, 2012

It's Klantastic!

I can't think of any cinematic genre that has the range of quality, content and sub-categories that blaxploitation does. I've been delving into some of the more obscure films dealing with racial inequality lately (what I dub "race-sploitation") and I've noted a wide disparity, not only in subject matter, but filmmaking quality as well. From sublime films like One Potato, Two Potato and Across 110th Street to ridiculous fare, such as This Rebel Breed and Mandinga, I've been sampling and enjoying it all.

I was actually shocked at just how many films, specifically dealing with interracial relationships, were made in the 50's and 60's. But I shouldn't have been surprised, these films wouldn't have had any secondary TV market value to foster familiarity during these decades as they would have been deemed too incendiary for the mass TV consuming populace. Indeed, the first interracial kiss on network TV did not occur until November 1968 on a Star Trek episode called Plato's Children (which in the script, is telekinetically forced on the characters - I always thought this was a bit of a cop-out, and a weak example of a taboo breaking moment). So it makes since that a lot of these movies could have easily been missed after their initial release, and there would be no market for them until the proliferation of VHS in the 80's, by which time, many had faded into obscurity.

"The ku klux klan killed my little girl, now i'm alone in this hostile world, my plan for vengeance may seem odd, but with the help of god, i will destroy them from within, disguise myself and become the black klansman."

"The Black Klansman"
-Tony Harris

Has there ever been a more subversive and transgressive movie title in the history of cinema than The Black Klansman? If there is, I can't think of it. The movie also goes by the wordier and far less egregious, I Crossed the Color Line. I had never heard of it, but knew with a title like that, it deserved a look. Released in 1966, it was the brain child of producer Joe Solomon who hired director Ted V. Mikels to make the film in the deep south...of California. Specifically, the movie was shot in and around Bakersfield with an intentional fake marketing gimmick claiming it was "filmed in complete secrecy in the deep south". As if the film's title and marketing ploy weren't brazen enough, it wound up actually shooting while the Watts riots were going on. With this kind of preamble and a budget of $50,000, one would expect a big letdown when it came to the actual movie itself. My expectation was that it would be something campy, poorly constructed and/or preachy. To my surprise, it was none of those things, but an earnest, serious treatment of what was clearly exploitation subject matter, but which never elicits any unintended humor. Even with the Victor/Victoria-like mind-melting idea of a white actor playing a black man who pretends to be white, it doesn't offend or condescend. One big reason for this is lead Richard Gilden, who plays musician Jerry Ellsworth. Gilden has an easy-going style, but he never attempts to 'black it up' in either accent or mannerisms. Quite the opposite, he actually manages to 'white it up' when portraying his supposedly white character by becoming somewhat more stiffer and self-concious. Also, other than a perm and fake goatee, there was no attempt to prostethic-ally make Gilden look blacker, unlike Mark Damon in The Rebel Breed, for example, who disconcertingly, kept changing shades throughout the film due to excessive make up. It also helps sell Gilden's character that his buddy is played by super cool James McEachin in what was his film debut. Couple this with a very white girlfriend named Andrea, played by Rima Kutner and I bought Gilden in the role.

The film opens by bouncing back and forth between Jerry and his friends in LA and the goings-on in a small Alabama town called Turnerville just after the 1964 Civil Rights bill has passed. A young black man in Turnerville decides to make a statement by sitting at the lunch counter of the local 'whites only' establishment despite being warned by his older brother that this may not be the best idea. Predictably, complications ensue...

What follows is some very quick and horrific violence that includes a shooting and church fire-bombing, the brevity of which makes it all the more effective. There is also a brief aside in the midst of the violence where the klan tosses a pair of a victim's shoes at the feet of his mother that is shocking in its hatefulness. But to his credit, Mikel, who also edited the film, doesn't revel in these moments as so many filmmakers are prone to do, but executes them quickly with a terrible finality. There's another scene near the end of the film that's similarly quick, brutal and final.
As it turns out, the little girl who gets burned to death at the fire-bombing of the church is Jerry's daughter who has been living with his mother. Stunned and angry, Jerry decides to seek revenge on the KKK by disguising himself as a white man and attempting to join up.

Meanwhile, the brother of  the shooting victim has a little payback of his own in mind and hires a rabble-rousing, radical named Raymond, played with fantastic aplomb by Max Julien, to take care of the klan. Raymond's speech at the local black hangout reminded me of Cyrus' in The Warriors and he definitely owns the screen whenever he's on it.

And of course Jerry's girlfriend and buddy subsequently follow him down to Turnerville and are immediately captured and used by both sides of the conflict. The writing in the film, while not always great, has moments of pure inspiration like this that keep it moving along quite nicely. On the other hand, there are some wasted opportunities like Jerry sexing down the local klan leader's daughter. Unfortunately, this plot development is never adequately paid off, but ends in the two amicably going their separate ways. I was hoping that Jerry would reveal he was black and had another white girlfriend while he was in the act of nailing klan-dad's daughter. Oh well. 
The film does feature a couple of really disturbing klan scenes that Mikel claimed in the commentary had been boosted by others for use in their projects which I completely believe as the footage looks so authentic and newsreel-like.

It's easy to make the klan look like circus clowns in their ridiculous costumes, but Mikel resists that temptation and takes them seriously as well as the overall story. The film has its share of flaws, most of which are likely due to budgetary considerations, but for an inexpensive B-film it is surprisingly engaging. Much like the Tony Harris title song it opens with, it initially appears on the surface to be cheesy and exploitive, but it soon draws you in.