B&W, 1966, 87m.
Directed by Ted V. Mikels
Starring Richard Gilden, Rima Kutner, Harry Lovejoy, Max Julien, Jakie Deslonde, Jimmy Mack, Maureen Gaffney
Code Red (DVD) (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)

Though it became a movie mainstay in the '70s, so-called "racesploitation" was too hot a topic in the volatile '60s to get much traction on the big screen. A few filmmakers tried in the profitable wake of the French-filmed Southern trash classic I Spit on Your Grave from 1959 (no relation to the more infamous rape/revenge film from '78), and one of the earliest of these was Ted V. Mikels, an exploitation vet with three credits already under his belt (Dr. Sex, One Shocking Moment, and Strike Me Deadly). 1966's The Black Klansman turned out to be his final film shot in black and white ("like in real life," according to the posters) and is easily one of his more cinematically accomplished efforts. After this film he turned to more outrageous and considerably more threadbare fare like The Astro-Zombies and The Corpse Grinders, which still have their charms if you're in the right mood.

Shot in a tabloid-style expose style probably inspired by 1955's The Phenix City Story, the film charts the revenge of light-skinned black musician Jerry Ellsworth (Lost, Lonely and Vicious' Gilden), whose daughter is killed in an Alabama church bombing during the social upheaval caused by integration. Jerry passes himself off as a Klan-leading construction contractor from California and gets close to the KKK honcho (Girl in Gold Boots' Lovejoy) behind the attacks that are killing off black and white citizens. Unfortunately his plan gets sidelined by his white girlfriend (Kutner) and a black Yankee gangster (Julien, in his film debut before starring in The Mack) intent on avenging the deaths of his Southern brothers.

No one will ever confuse The Black Klansman with In the Heat of the Night, but as far as studies of hostile race relations in America go, it's not half bad and even features a solid lead performance from Gilden (who manages to make the whole white-actor-playing-black-playing-white concept slightly less than ridiculous). Mikels' camerawork is typically crisp but static, with lighting typical of a '60s TV drama. Overall it's more sensitive than the title might lead you to expect, and interestingly, the actual transfer (from the original negative) bears the equally goofy alternate title of I Crossed the Color Line. The quality is actually pretty solid and about as good as a cheap '60s drive-in title could look; you can definitely chuck out any old VHS copies or that horrible bootleg DVD from "Blax Films" that was floating around a few years ago. The mono audio sounds fine, especially during the exposition-heavy title theme song (yes, seriously).

You also get two audio commentaries, which for some reason are decked out with their own titles ("Infiltrate the Klan" and "White Man Jive," respectively). First up is Mikels himself, and... well, if you've ever heard any of Mikel's plentiful commentaries out there, you already know what to expect. While he offers the occasional useful tip for indie filmmakers working on a college student budget, he mostly sits back and comments on the onscreen action. Keep that fast forward button handy. The second track with make-up man and bit actor Byrd Holland (who also worked on Terror Circus) and moderator Lee Christian is substantially better and offers a nice conversational tour through the making of the film. "Blacks Like Me" features Gilden in a new video interview about his role in the film and some of his other TV and movie work (including a few credits that might surprise you), and an alternate opening title sequence (as The Black Klansman) is also included along with the original trailer. As usual, more Code Red trailers are tossed in, this time all black-themed with titles including Mean Johnny Barrows, Black Gestapo (as Ghetto Warriors), and Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde. Not surprisingly, the menu screen features a Klansman smoking a cigarette, and one special features option for "a documentary on white people who act black" comes up with a hilarious disclaimer.