Before the release of Spike Lee’s latest film, ‘BlackKklansman,’ American Studies lecturer Dr Rodney Taveira examines the history of the Ku Klux Klan in American cinema, from ‘The Birth of a Nation’ to ‘A Time to Kill’.
US Studies Center Lecturer and Honours Coordinator Dr. Rodney Taveira is also a lecturer and Honors Coordinator at the United States Studies Center.
Spike Lee’s latest film, BlackKklansman, was based on the true story of African-American police officer Ron Stallworth, who received the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival (played by John David Washington, son of long-time Lee collaborator Denzel Washington). In 1979, Stallworth infiltrated a local KKK branch in Colorado with the cooperation of his white colleagues.
The history of white supremacy in the United States is linked to the current administration in the film. A car slammed through counter-protesters during a 2017 “Unite the Right” demonstration, killing Heather Heyer, and Lee uses video from the event in his film. When the trial begins in November, (the driver has been charged with hate crimes) Former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke is heard claiming that Trump’s election marks a turning point in American history, and that “we” will “take the country back.” In BlackKklansman, Duke is an important supporting character. That ’70s Show’s Topher Grace plays him in a clever casting choice.
A time when dissent from any standpoint is so easily dismissed as ‘kookery’, fake news, agenda-driven propaganda, or any of the -isms and -phobias you may accuse the other side of practicing would appear to necessitate the bluntness of Lee’s strategy. On the question of whether the White House has given the green light to the Klan, he makes it even more clear:
As far back as Lee can remember, the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan in popular culture has been a source of irritation for him. America’s film industry has benefited greatly from a wide range of ready-made visuals and themes that have shown to be a stunning aspect of the country’s filmmaking. To many, including Lee, the KKK – and the white supremacy it so vividly depicts – is a significant figure in American film history.
Listed below are a few movies that have notably featured the Ku Klux Klan during the course of Hollywood’s history.
1. The Birth of a Nation (D. W. Griffiths, 1915)
W. Griffith’s 1915 epic, BlackKlansman, is the standard lecture on D. W. Griffith’s 1915 epic: it was the original blockbuster; it depicted the failure of Reconstruction after US Civil War; it conventionalized cinematic technique (such as cross-cutting and parallel action); it whitewashes history; and its great heroes are the KKK, who rise to defend the white race after a virginal, Southern white woman throws h. Belafonte, a 91-year-old entertainer and civil rights activist, delivers the now-standard lecture. Richard Brody, film critic for The New Yorker, writes about The Birth of a Nation: “The worst thing is how good it is.” It was “history written with lightning,” as President Woodrow Wilson put it. The Klan’s membership grew to five million in the following decade. It even had its own film studio to make propaganda.
2. Black Legion (Archie Mayo, 1937)
After the initial growth of the Klan was suppressed, a more organized second Klan was established in 1915. But despite the film’s racist reputation (the NAACP organized a statewide boycott), The Birth of a Nation boosted support for the Ku Klux Klan and its affiliates, such as the Black Legion. This myth of the Klan being heroic and on the right side of the American experiment was bolstered by eugenicist science, which held that there was an evolutionary hierarchy among humans, with whites at the top and other races at the bottom. Despite this, the Klan’s influence waned throughout the 1930s. This is represented in the film Black Legion, which depicts the 1936 kidnapping and murder of WPA organizer Charles A. Poole (a New Deal agency employing millions in public works during the Great Depression). Humphrey Bogart plays a factory worker who joins the Black Legion after an immigrant earns a promotion at his expense in this Warner Bros. dramatization — anti-affirmative action before affirmative action existed in this film. A friend who was trying to speak sense into him is murdered, but he finds some forgiveness by informing the authorities about the existence of a secret society.
3. Gone With the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939)
Gone with the Wind was the highest-grossing film before The Birth of a Nation. It’s best known for Rhett Butler’s complete lack of interest, despite the film’s romanticization of the American South. It was controversial at the time because of the film’s revisionist treatment of slavery, particularly in the role of Mammy, performed by Hattie McDaniel (the first African American woman to win an Oscar). The climax sequence in which Scarlett O’Hara is attacked shows how the film’s racist undertones have mellowed. O’Hara is assaulted by a black man in Margaret Mitchell’s source work, which prompts Butler to form an alliance with Klansmen to avenge her assault. Instead of being attacked by a black guy, in the film she is saved by a former slave named “Big Sam,” who continues to hold the same role after the Civil War.
4. Storm Warning (Stuart Heisler, 1951)
Storm Warning, starring Ronald Reagan, is a noir thriller depicting the Klan as a timid and vicious organization. However, despite the fact that Jim Crow is still in place, “official” and blatant racism is now un-American, in stark contrast to the recently defeated Nazis — as evidenced by the Jewish character who refuses to collaborate with police for fear of what the Klan will do to him. A prisoner was snatched from police custody by the Klan. Despite this, they remain powerful and omnipresent. When a white woman is whipped by the Klan, and the police, led by Reagan’s courageous district attorney, raid the rally, the KKK is overthrown.
5. Blazing Saddles (Mel Brooks, 1974); The Toy (Richard Donner, 1982); Fletch Lives (Michael Ritchie, 1989)
As in earlier Southern Revival films or in the social conscience pictures of Warner Bros., these comedies, which roughly span the time period of BlackKklansman, employ the Klan as a punchline rather than a source of heroism. A Grand Wizard wrapped in chocolate fudge is one of the pranks used by Richard Pryor, Gene Wilder, Jackie Gleason, and Chevy Chase to fuel their antics. The films, on the other hand, support the widely held belief that the Ku Klux Klan is intertwined with politics and preaching in the South. In Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012), the Klan is shown as a bunch of impotent idiots arguing about how uncomfortable their hoods are. In O Brother Where Art Thou? (The Coen Brothers, 2000), a one-two punch is delivered when the Grand Wizard and Mississippi governor candidate first catches a spear meant to murder him, only to be flattened by a huge burning cross.
6. Mississippi Burning (Alan Parker, 1988)
This film, Mississippi Burning, is based loosely on the historic 1964 murders of three civil rights workers (two Jewish and one black) as they travelled from the north to register African-Americans in Mississippi to vote. To catch the Klansmen responsible for the murders, Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe play FBI agents who devise a series of (very ridiculous) sting operations. It was widely praised, but critics argued that it was a white-savior story, comparing it to “Rambo meets the Klan,” a civil rights leader.
7. A Time to Kill (Joel Schumacher, 1996)
After grossing more than US$150 million at the box office, A Time to Kill shifts focus from the Ku Klux Klan to a society that must punish those responsible for acts of discrimination against minorities. In the case of a black man who kills two white Mississippians who raped and killed his little daughter, this principle is put to the test. Post-David Duke “respectability” Klan protests outside court protected by First Amendment The bluntness of Matthew McConaughey’s challenge to the all-white jury — and the audience — after depicting the girl’s brutalization reminds me of BlackKklansman. “Now, imagine that she’s white,” he says.
Faculty member in the American Studies Department at the University of the South Florida’s United States Studies Center
After receiving his PhD in English from the University of Sydney in 2010, Rodney Taveira began publishing essays and book reviews about modern American fiction, book reviews, and television, as well as the connections between film, photography, and art. American and European movies (silent era to current), US television, comedy in the US, and LGBTQ and sexuality studies are among his areas of specialization.
Graduated from the University of Sydney in 2010, Rodney Taveira has worked on modern American fiction and book reviews as well as the interrelationship of cinema, photography/painting/literature in connection to contemporary American culture. American and European movies (silent era to current), US television, comedy in the US, and LGBTQ and sexuality studies are among his areas of specialization.