Friday, February 24, 2017

Black Movie Churches Month: The Black Klansman

Black Klansman (aka I Crossed the Color Line) 1966
Let’s get this out of the way at the beginning: The Black Klansman is an exploitation film. You might even call it a Blaxploitation film, though the main era of Hollywood’s African American films, starting at the time of 1971’s Shaft, were made almost a decade later. Blaxploitation films were genre films (cops, gangster, horror) that were mostly made during the seventies. Usually, African Americans were behind the camera in those films, but that’s not the case in The Black Klansman.

The crew behind the camera for The Black Klansman was rather inept. The film was written by Arthur Names, who also wrote Snakes: The Armored Warriors and Girl in Gold Boots (featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000). Ted Mikels, the director of the film, went on to direct the first two features in The Corpse Grinders series and four features in The Astro Zombies series, along with The Doll Squad (which I saw in a special screening at the Castro Theater in San Francisco for a special mocking session from the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew.) We are talking some horrible filmmakers here.

Back to the film. It’s certainly true to their exploitation roots. A black jazz musician in Los Angeles, Jerry,  learns that Klansmen in Turnerville, Alabama, firebombed a church, killing the man’s young daughter. He returns to Turnerville disguised as a white man and infiltrates the Klan to learn who killed his daughter and to seek revenge. (It should be noted that the disguise Jerry uses, a white man toupee to cover his ‘fro, is the lamest disguise since Clark Kent’s glasses.)

As an exploitation film of its time, it doesn’t miss any chances to show a couples in bed (mixed race couples!) and cleavage. There are fights (not well choreographed) and there is violence. But the film is “on the right side of history,” saying the Klan and segregation are bad. It even ends with an inspirational quote from John F. Kennedy urging us all to learn to get along.

But for the purposes of this blog, we’ll need to look at the one church in this film and the two clergymen.

The church in the film, the one that is firebombed, is St. Peter’s MIssionary Baptist Church. We do see a good crowd at the Wednesday night prayer meeting. Everyone there sings heartily “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”  Before the bombing, we hear part of the pastor’s sermon, “We are lost sheep in the eyes of our Lord Jesus Christ. Let us rise and dedicate ourselves to His way. For Hs is the way of everlasting peace.” It was all very orthodox and not what you’d expect from a filmmaker responsible for 1964’s Dr. Sex.

After the firebombing of his church, the Reverend is impressive as he discourages violence, “More bloodshed is not the answer. Let us return to the church and rebuild. The Lord will show a way.” But he does work for justice, badgering the sheriff and the mayor to investigate the killings of blacks by the Klan. By the film’s end, he has successfully convinced Turnerville’s mayor to work for the good of all citizens, black and white.

White actor playing, Jerry, a black playing a white
There is one other “clergyman” in the film, and he’s not as inspirational. Jenkins is the “Kludd” or chaplain for the local chapter of the Klan. It is his job to “say the prayers that will keep people in line and fire them up.” We learn later that he certainly wouldn’t have been one of the men that threw the firebomb: “it’s against his religion,” we’re told. He only prepared the firebomb for someone else to throw.

Not surprisingly, the Klan has wretched theology, “If God had wanted us to eat, sleep, go to school and go to church with N#U($*s, He would have told us about it in the Bible.” (May I recommend Galatians 3:28?) And if they integrate, “May the Lord strike us dead!” (There are far better reasons for the Lord to strike some Klan members dead.)

And, of course, there are the cross burnings. This piece of symbolism has always baffled me, especially for Klan members who call themselves Christians (which sadly is a majority since they seem to have no idea what it is to be a follower of Jesus Christ). Why do they make a ritual of destroying the primary symbol of the Christian faith? The Kludd says it’s “an emblem of devotion to principles, to serve and sacrifice for life.” Which still makes no sense to me. I think they just like to watch stuff burn.

So we’re giving St. Peter’s and its pastor our highest rating of four steeples and the Kludd of the Klan our lowest rating of one steeple. (Sometimes I wish we had a way of giving out negative steeples.)

(If you should be interested in watching this film, which can be enjoyed best as a historical curiosity, on Amazon it’s free for Prime members and can also be found at Youtube.)

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