Jerry Ellsworth (Richard Gildren, far right) is inducted into the KKK in a shot from The Black Klansman (a.k.a. I Crossed the Color Line, dir. Ted V. Mikels, 1966), a surprisingly not-terrible racial melodrama that’s recently been put out on DVD by Code Red. The subject matter is sensationalistic and the production levels are B-grade, but it’s mostly well-acted and the plot is rather complex and nuanced. After the Klan kills a little girl in the bombing of a black church, the girl’s light-skinned father (Gildren, a white actor) passes for white and infiltrates the group in order to get revenge.
In watching and thinking about exploitation films, I’ve been trying to determine exactly who or what, in each case, is being exploited. Made in the wake of the civil rights movement, The Black Klansman is an admirably progressive film in terms of race and gender, and it seems to me only an exploitation film insofar as it treats its racial issues somewhat luridly. Otherwise it’s too earnest and socially engaged to qualify as real exploitation fare and not badly made enough to be laughable. It’s just a solid 1960s B-movie that boldly addresses ideas about racism, interracial love, black militancy, and identity which mainstream Hollywood was only comfortable touching within the bounds of good taste. (Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, released the following year  comes to mind—a dutifully polished social drama that feels like it was filmed in a different universe from The Black Klansman.)
The director, Ted V. Mikels, also remarks on the DVD commentary track that the film allowed him to tap into the large pool of unknown and under-utilized black actors in Hollywood at the time. There are some very good supporting turns here, many by black performers who later did television work, such as James McEachin (Tenafly); Whitman Mayo (later of Sanford and Son); and Frances E. Williams, who was stuck playing maid roles throughout the 1940s and 50s and who shines here in a small but wonderfully played scene in which, fearing for her son’s safety, she tries to convince him not to go into a white diner. Whatever their failings or weak points, independently produced movies like this often gave actors of color the opportunity to play meatier, more compelling roles than the ones available to them within the studio system.
The movie also sports a title song (!) that, once heard, is impossible to get out of your head. I’ve been singing it to myself for the past week (but trying not to do so in public). Have a listen below.