A couple of characters cross the color line in differing ways in Ted V. Mikels’ THE BLACK KLANSMAN, a revenge thriller with a racial twist now on DVD from Code Red Releasing.
The Civil Rights Act has been passed and there are riots all over the country. Jerry Ellsworth (Richard Gilden) is a light-skinned black jazz musician living in Los Angeles with white singer girlfriend Andrea (Rima Kutner). When his young daughter is killed in a church bombing by the Klan, Jerry runs out on Andrea and realizes that since he can pass for white, he can pose as a white man (with a hairpiece) to infiltrate the klan in his hometown by posing as California contractor John Ashley (not the FRANKENSTEIN’S DAUGHTER actor) who wants to found a chapter in Los Angeles. He is taken under the wing of real estate agent Rook (Harry Lovejoy, THE NAKED VENUS) and becomes an initiate (while seducing Rook’s flirty daughter). Farley (Jakie Deslonde), whose younger brother was lynched for patronizing a white café, has brought in Harlem gangster Raymond (Max Julien, THE MACK himself) and his bald heavy to teach the black locals how to deal with the klan. When Andrea shows up in town looking for Jerry, she is put in danger not only from Raymond (who uses her as a decoy for one of the attacks on the klan members), but also from the Klan who do not take kindly to a white woman hanging around the shanty side of town (much less, sharing a hotel room with one of Jerry’s musician friends who tagged along to keep her safe).
Shot on judiciously-chosen Southern California locations representing the south, THE BLACK KLANSMAN means to mean well (despite the I CROSSED THE COLOR LINE posters suggesting that the “crossing” is being done by Andrea – although in that sense, it could just as easily apply to Rook’s daughter, although the apple didn’t fall that far from the tree with that Southern Belle – rather than Jerry’s “passing for white”), but its still silly enough for Mikels fans. Screenwriters Art Names and James T. Wilson were two academic friends of Mikels who had also scripted his THE GIRL IN GOLD BOOTS (Names also directed SNAKES, which was co-written with Wilson). One shortcoming of the script is unevenly balancing the Jerry and Farley storylines. Jerry disappears from most of the film’s middle, which is where gangster Raymond comes in (as does Andrea). The storylines do eventually converge, but we’re given little of Jerry’s conflict with having to maintain his cover while going through the various Klan initiations (one of the best scenes in the film shows an amiable exchange between “white” Jerry and a black hotel porter turn tense when Jerry asks where he can find Rook). Several characters introduced early on seem to be important but disappear from the remainder of the film (Farley’s mother, Jerry’s mother, Rook’s daughter) and the ending wraps up everything very quickly.
Gilden gives a good performance (only derailed in a few places by the script’s melodramatics); his “it is I” reveal at the end is as unintentionally hilarious as his realization early on that he can pass for white (his hairpiece gets a special credit during the opening titles). Kutner was brought onto the production by Solomon and appears to have not had any other film roles, but she is good here. Julien gives what could be described either as a scene-chewing performance or, more charitably, a “theatrical” performance; either way, it is very entertaining and appropriate to his gangster character. It also livens up the middle of the film which had started to slow to a crawl before his entrance. Gilden mentions in the interview, that Julien did bring a lot of little mannerisms and touches to the performance. Lovejoy makes an especially good pompous and eventually sniveling Klan leader. Many of the black supporting actors were not professionals; while they are a little stiff, they don’t detract from the drama (Deslonde’s Farley would have been just as interesting a main character, although it would have been would be a very different film). Make-up artist Bryd Holland and future exploitation actor Gary Kent have small roles.
THE BLACK KLANSMAN was originally released on VHS by Unicorn Video under that title (as well as a handful of other PD tape labels). This tape was likely the source for the film's early unauthorized DVD incarnations (on a couple multi-film sets as well as a standalone release with a cover that incorporates a close-up of the hooded killer from THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN). Judging by the title sequence included in the extras, those versions were pretty soft and murky. The print source for the feature bears the alternate title I CROSSED THE COLOR LINE. The credits appear on a plain background, whereas THE BLACK KLANSMAN title sequence appears over a scene from later in the film. The 1.78:1 widescreen anamorphic feature transfer is in great condition (some shots during the night Klan scenes look soft but there is also a lot of flare caused by the torches, so it's probably a fault of the original cinematography). The mono audio is always clear and nicely renders the theme song and Jerry’s echoey delirium audio montage early in the film.
Code Red’s single-layer disc is packed with extras starting with a pair of commentary tracks. On the first commentary track, director Ted V. Mikels goes solo and tells a generally compelling behind-the-scenes story of the film’s making (Mikels ordered producer Solomon to stay off the set for the duration of the shoot, with the exception of his early cameo appearance). Holland (who also appeared on the commentary track for the Code Red-prepared/Shriek Show-issued authorized version of TERROR CIRCUS) shares the second commentary track with moderator Lee Christian. Holland points out that the film was not only shot in black and white for thematic purposes, but also for the sake of Gilden’s make-up (Christian points out the similar reasoning for shooting SOME LIKE IT HOT in monochrome). Holland also provided make-up for Richard Blackburn’s LEMORA, A CHILD’S TALE OF THE SUPERNATURAL (which was also photographed in gorgeous color by BLACK KLANSMAN cinematographer Robert Caramico). Both commentators have interesting things to say about Max Julien (who gets one of the film’s more creative introductory shots).
“Blacks Like Me” (17:44) is an interview with the amiable Gilden (he compares the make-up job in THE BLACK KLANSMAN to that used in his role in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS). Gilden also fondly remembers Lovejoy, Julien, Solomon and Mikels. He also has a great Cecil B. Demille anecdote. There is a menu option for a documentary on white people who act black, but it takes you to a title card that informs you that the documentary’s filmmaker chose not to allow its inclusion despite a signed contract (as exasperating as that may have been, Code Red would have been better off not mentioning it altogether since the rest of the extras are sufficient). The “Alternate THE BLACK KLANSMAN Title Card” (1:46) is actually the entire alternate title sequence (likely from the Unicorn VHS). The film’s 44-second theatrical trailer is the same one that faithful Code Red buyers have seen on their other discs. The disc package is rounded out by a handful of upcoming Code Red Blaxploitation trailers such as THE BLACK GESTAPO, MEAN JOHNNY BARROWS, and DR. BLACK AND MR. HYDE; although the latter has recently been announced as a special edition by VCI. (Eric Cotenas)
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