Southern Movie #4: “The Black Klansman”

The stark 1966 film, “The Black Klansman,” brought viewers, who were in the midst of the Civil Rights era, an exceptionally cheesy and dubiously Deep Southern story of a light-skinned “negro” in Los Angeles who infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan in his old hometown of Turnerville, Alabama after they kill his young daughter in the fire-bombing of a church. The opening credits explain that the screenplay is based on a song of the same name by Terry Harris. I came across “The Black Klansman” when I was searching Netflix for another film, and was immediately grabbed by its title. Though it’s probably too early to be considered “blaxploitation,” this mid-1960s low-budget film does have some of those characteristics.

As the film opens, we meet Jerry, a goatee-wearing LA hep cat, and his white girlfriend Andrea as they prep to go onstage, presumably in some sort of nightclub act. Jerry has just come back from snapping photos of local race riots for a white journalist who isn’t brave enough to get out in it, and Jerry’s skeptical, play-it-safe pal Lonnie plays the foil by making some swarthy comments about his lifestyle and his romance. The film ratchets up the tension when Jerry’s girlfriend wants to get married, and he starts to get angry, saying that neither their marriage nor their children would stand a chance in the real world. Then the call comes: his little daughter has been killed back in Alabama. Jerry freaks out and starts choking Andrea in a screaming rage about how he hates white people.

Back in the Turnerville of “The Black Klansman” racial tensions have elevated because a young black man has begun to push the envelope by seeking service in the white diner, even though he is warned not to stir up mess. The carload of Klansmen who firebomb the black church, killing Jerry’s daughter, are responding to this agitation, after also killing that lone young protestor.

Though Turnerville, Alabama is a real place, the Hollywood version of it in “The Black Klansman” doesn’t jive at all. The real Turnerville is north of Mobile near the Tensaw Delta, which is a low-lying, swampy place with lots of tall pines and Spanish moss. The film’s setting was a place of scrub brush, flat valleys, small mountains and sparse trees— basically, it was filmed in California, and only a person with no knowledge of Alabama would buy into that place being in south Alabama.

Jerry comes on the scene in Turnerville after having his hair straightened, his goatee shaved off, and his whole persona whitened. Once he gets there, He charges into the real estate offices of the Klan’s local head honcho – supposedly a big-time recruiter, but this guy can only muster one carload of bigots to firebomb a church – and demands to be taught how to start his own Klan chapter back in Los Angeles.

Now, let’s be frank here . . . in real life, back then, in small-town Alabama, charging into a big-time Klansman’s office— Jerry would have been dead by the time sun went down, no matter what color he was. But in the film, he walks out scot-free and even manages to catch the eye of the Klansman’s sultry blonde daughter at the front desk. Afterward, Jerry’s motel room gets the shakedown from a local dummy who can’t even hold his own in a one-on-one fight. Jerry handles him nicely, takes the fool’s gun from him, and sends him packing, only to be surprised immediately by the Klan leader who now believes in the young man’s sincerity. Jerry’s plan is working nicely.

Now, Jerry might have stood a chance to maintain his ruse but two unforeseen circumstances arise: the frustrated older brother of the slain wannabe-activist brings in some outside agitators from Harlem to organize the black community, and Lonnie and Andrea show up from LA to support their friend. While the skeptical, resistant response of the small-town Southern blacks to the two slick organizers is accurate enough, what happens with Lonnie and Andrea is way off base. When a black man and a white woman from out of town walk in the black nightclub, no one bats an eye! And then the bartender, who is also the town’s black motel owner, rents a room to the white woman as though it were a perfectly normal transaction! Keep in mind this is a town where a young black man is killed for ordering coffee at the white café. You just can’t expect a team of low-budget LA filmmakers in the mid-1960s to understand anything of Deep Southern nuance . . . .

Skipping ahead a little bit, Jerry makes friends among the KKK set and even gets inducted with a few other guys during a bizarre ceremony, but Lonnie and Andrea get roughed up by the two black organizers who need their help in killing whitey. In the final scene, all hell breaks loose: the black agitators face the lynch mob and Jerry has to convince his LA friends that he’s really on their side . . . before taking sweet revenge on the Klan!

The movie’s main poster claims that this hokey low-budget foolishness was “filmed in complete secrecy in the Deep South.” Not hardly. The place is off, and the characters are mostly off. Even the small-town black church used for the little girl’s funeral is whitewashed stucco with no greenery around it— basically, it’s a California church. Whoever dreamed up and made this farcical film knew nothing about the Deep South, its landscape, its people, or its social nuances. What is sad is that the poster’s other tag line was: “The most shattering film of our time!” Yeah, right.

In an even sadder note, under the alternate title “I Crossed the Color Line,” the film’s poster, which you can see on the imdb page, features a half-dressed Andrea transposed over top of she and Jerry in bed, and seems to insinuate with its imagery that the movie is some kind of taboo interracial-sex story.  Let’s be clear, there was nothing sexy – and very little Deep Southern – about “The Black Klansman.”

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