Exploitation great Ted V. Mikels directs this 1966 race relations drama, which straddles the line between sedate and totally incendiary. It's a black and white movie, which is quite on point considering the subject matter, even if the old-fashioned color scheme does its own part in making this seem slightly more of an antiquated curiosity. Obviously the message of Black Klansman (originally titled I Crossed the Color Line) is as vital and relevant today as ever, making this a worthy, startlingly entertaining potboiler.
Jerry Ellsworth (Richard Gilden) is a jazz musician in civil rights-era L.A. Coming from a marriage of black and white parents, Jerry further puts the affront to white racists by dating a white woman. He won't marry her, though, not wishing to saddle either family with the burden of blackness. It's only when he discovers a Ku Klux Klan engineered tragedy in his Southern hometown that he decides to stand up for black rights.
Convinced that he can pass as white, (not hard since actor Richard Gilden himself is white) Jerry cooks up some fake white cred, returning to his hometown of Turnerville to join the Klan and teach some lessons. Of course it's not that easy, and before everything's done you'll shocked once, twice, and again and again.
Mikels betrays nothing of the sensationalism other titles in his CV might imply: this is no Blood Orgy of the She-Devils, it's a serious look at the civil rights struggle from a realistic, humanist standpoint, with just the right amount of exploitation thrills included to keep people in the seats. Melodrama pervades, too. Gilden barely restrains his angst as a black man while talking with his girlfriend. It's only when she dares tell him to calm down that he boils over, deriding her repeatedly as a white woman. "White! White! White!" he screams.
Back in town as a whitey himself, he's slick and convincing; his racist acquaintances are mostly sedate as well, and it's a scary thing to see. When they don their robes and white hoods, they're free to be most vile, but in casual racism they're most shocking to viewers, tossing about the 'N' word with practiced ease while treating their fellow humans as less-than. Throw in two or three engaging, also racially-charged subplots, and you've got a cracking 90 minutes that's both serious and sensationalistic.
Under Mikels' steady direction, this exploitation takes itself seriously, and delivers both a little more and a little less than it promises. You won't find as much undercover subterfuge as you might want from a movie called Black Klansman, Jerry's infiltration is almost beside the point. Though plenty shocking, the movie's thoughtful focus lands more squarely on how his situation affects Jerry's friends and acquaintances - including a group of black-power rabble rousers - and on what Jerry will do when he gets his chance to deliver comeuppance. Black Klansman is a solid, thoughtful drama masquerading as an exploitation picture, delivering just enough of each element to please both camps of viewers.
Code Red sent us a professionally manufactured check disk, therefore my assessment of AV quality should be deemed reliable but not guaranteed. Klansman skulks out of the shadows in a fairly decent looking 1.78:1 transfer, as far as low budget obscurities go. Detail levels, especially in the foreground, are OK, while the image is mostly pretty crisp. There is plenty of grain, which increases in night scenes, and some soft gray backgrounds occasionally appear with some digital mosquito noise. Notably, black and white scenes of high contrast - think cross-burning rally in the night - really struggle with digital smashing or something, making the scum in white hoods appear to swim in some other weirdly outlined reality. Other soft details - smoke, subtly shaded skin-tones, etc. - struggle against digital mush, but there is little in the way of print damage, which sort of evens things out.
Digital Mono Audio also appears to be just fine, though at times it suffers from poor recording. Looped room-sound recording for outdoor scenes, in particular, is conspicuous, though everything is easy to understand. The soundtrack is mixed in at an appropriate level as well.
Code Red has (attempted) a bang up job as far as extras go. Included are two commentary tracks. There's a Director's Commentary with Ted V. Mikels. It's a commentary track that's somewhat halting, mostly due to Mikels' advanced age - old people tend to pause a lot. Mikels provides a decent mix of BTS/tech information with his philosophy behind the film. While he does occasionally redundantly comment about on-screen activity, It's a nice commentary for patient Mikels fans. We also get a Another Commentary Track with makeup artist Byrd Holland, moderated by Vegan Connoisseur Lee Christian. Holland gives plenty of information about turning a white man into a black man who then tries to pass as white, but he and Christian also touch on many, many other bases related to the film and otherwise - it's a nice lively track, too. There is also an 18-minute interview, Blacks Like Me: Unmasking Richard Gilden which features the star of the movie reminiscing in entertaining and informative manner. Most curiously included is A Documentary on White People who act like Black People, which sounds so intriguing, but is represented only by a title card stating that the director of the documentary withdrew permission to use it at the last minute. Rounding things out are an Alternate Opening Sequence, the Original Theatrical Trailer and a few other Code Red Trailers of the blaxploitation variety.
Exploitation guru, director Ted V. Mikels allows Black Klansman to take itself seriously, delivering a bit of both exploitation shocks and heavy drama. You won't find as much undercover subterfuge as you might want from such a movie, Jerry's infiltration of the murderous Klan is almost beside the point. In this plenty shocking movie, the thoughtful focus lands squarely on how Jerry's situation affects his friends and acquaintances - including a group of black-power rabble-rousers - and on what Jerry will do when he gets his chance to deliver comeuppance. Black Klansman is a solid, thoughtful drama masquerading as an exploitation picture, delivering just enough of each element to please both camps of viewers, and earning a Recommended rating.
- Kurt Dahlke
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