“No pointy hats, but plenty of pointy heads.” That’s how the jaded FBI man played by Gene Hackman sums up the Jessup County chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning. Sure enough, the Klansmen in the 1988 film eschew the organization’s traditional robes, although some make simple pillowcase hoods when they go out terrorizing the locals, having been riled up by the actions of the Freedom Riders in the summer of 1964 and the federal agents who follow in their wake when three of the organizers go missing. You don’t need to wear the full Klan regalia to go all-in on the organization’s hatred and intolerance, though, as the recent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., which left one counter-demonstrator dead, demonstrated.
Since its lionization in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation in 1915, the KKK has rarely been depicted as the heroes of mainstream films. In fact, apart from a handful of imitators that followed Griffith’s lead (some produced by the Klan itself), most films that came after recast the group (or its equivalent) as either unambiguously villainous or outright buffoons. The year 1920 alone brought with it pioneering African-American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux’s The Symbol of the Unconquered, in which the Knights of the Black Cross are repelled when they try to run a black prospector off his land, and the Harold Lloyd two-reeler An Eastern Westerner, which sees Lloyd’s city slicker outwitting a band of hooded vigilantes called the Masked Angels.
By the 1930s, organized hate groups were no laughing matter, with no fewer than three features released in one six-month span that sought to expose them for the money-making schemes many were. Taking inspiration from a Detroit murder carried out by a nationalist group called the Black Legion, 1936’s Legion of Terror and 1937’s Black Legion and Nation Aflame featured working-class white men duped into paying inflated initiation fees and shelling out hard-earned money for elaborate costumes to become part of a reactionary mob.
The one with the highest profile today, Black Legion, was made by Warner Bros. and stars Humphrey Bogart as a working stiff who joins the group after he’s passed over for a promotion at his shop. For its part, Nation Aflame is notable for being based on a novel by Thomas Dixon, author of The Clansman, which spawned The Birth of a Nation 22 years earlier. How better to signal that romanticizing the Klan and its offshoots was a thing of the past? It would still be another 14 years, though, before Warners took on the Klan directly with 1951’s Storm Warning, starring Ronald Reagan as a folksy D.A. (who still lives at home with his parents!) out to indict the chapter that has a firm grip on his city.
In the 1960s, it was time for independent operators like Roger Corman, Samuel Fuller, and Ted V. Mikels to enter the fray. But while Corman and Fuller approached the subject of intolerance with serious intent in 1962’s The Intruder and 1963’s Shock Corridor, respectively, Mikels left no racially insensitive stone unturned in The Black Klansman (1966), about a light-skinned black man who infiltrates his hometown’s Klavern to avenge his murdered daughter. Meanwhile, preternatural button-pusher John Waters made his directorial debut with the 1964 short Hag in a Black Leather Jacket, in which a hooded Klansman officiates at the wedding of a black man and a white woman.
The watershed year for films depicting the KKK as easily bamboozled bumblers and bumpkins, however, was 1974, which brought forth Mel Brooks’s uproarious Blazing Saddles and Terence Young’s laughable The Klansman.
Despite being set in the Old West (in and around Rock Ridge, a close cousin to Storm Warning’s Rock Point and its “community of American homes and ideals”), Blazing Saddles indulges in anachronisms aplenty, as when scheming politico Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) puts out a call for “every vicious criminal and gunslinger in the West” that attracts a pair of Klansmen (in robes that say “Have a nice day” on the back) to an applicant pool that includes assorted outlaws, bikers, and banditos. Naturally, when Sheriff Bart and the Waco Kid (Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder) need to infiltrate their ranks, it’s the fellows in white that they bait with Bart’s faux-innocent query, “Where are the white women at?”
The existential threat Bart poses that lures the Klansmen into the ambush that allows him and the Kid to take their place in line is made good in The Klansman, which is set in contemporary rural Alabama (where the more things change…) and turns on the rape of a white woman at the hands of a black man. In response, an innocent man is lynched while his buddy (O.J. Simpson in an early screen performance) watches from the bushes, taking note of those responsible so he can gun them down, donning a purloined Klan robe to get the jump on one of them. As bad as those optics are, they’re far from the only public-relations poser faced by the mayor (erstwhile reformed Rock Ridge racist David Huddleston), who whines that he’s the local Klan organization’s “damn Exalted Cyclops” when he has difficulty keeping the excitable rank and file in line. Toss in Lee Marvin as the town’s self-described “back-country sheriff” and Richard Burton as a bitter, crippled landowner who struggles with the bottle and his accent in equal measure, and you’ve got a recipe for a southern-friend fiasco that co-scripter Samuel Fuller wisely bowed out of directing.
Not wanting to be left out, the Nazis joined the party in John Landis’s The Blues Brothers (1980). First encountered by Jake and Elwood Blues (John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd) while holding a march (and holding up traffic) in a Chicago park, the American Socialist White People’s Party are forced off a bridge by the Bluesmobile, an act greeted with cheers and applause by counter-protestors on the scene. (Admittedly, this moment may not garner the same response from viewers today.) It also earns Jake and Elwood the enmity of head Nazi Henry Gibson, who patiently plots his revenge and, in the midst of the extended car chase that closes the film, is thrust into what can only be described as a physics-defying motor vehicle stunt that ends with him and his driver, who chooses their final moments together to declare his love for his superior, plummeting to their certain doom. I guess it never pays to be an Illinois Nazi.
Having served as one of the writers of Blazing Saddles but denied the opportunity to star in it, Richard Pryor had to wait until the following decade to go toe-to-toe with the KKK. In Bustin’ Loose (1981), he plays a criminal dragooned into driving a bus full of special-ed children across the country, and has to go for help when the bus gets stuck in the mud one rainy night. Naturally, he bumps into the local chapter while they’re out for a stroll and somehow manages to talk them into lending a hand. (This scene is iconic enough that it’s represented on the poster.) In the process of doing their good deed, a number of the Klansmen get mud all over their nice white outfits, prompting their leader to recommend they never tell anybody about what happened.
Someone back in Hollywood was evidently taking notes, though, because this episode has its match in the climax of 1982’s The Toy, which director Richard Donner stages at a garden party being thrown by wealthy bigot U.S. Bates (Jackie Gleason) for the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan (who appears in his civvies, but still looks the part). In response, Pryor and his young charge, Bates’s unruly son, crash the party by driving pint-sized race cars through it and sending the Grand Wizard headlong into a giant bowl of chocolate pudding, after which he’s arrested for starting a pie fight. It’s not exactly subtle, but it gets the point across nonetheless.
Humiliation is also the order of the day in Bob Clark’s Porky’s II: The Next Day, the 1983 sequel to his surprise hit. In it, Clark’s sex-crazed heroes take time out from being crazed by sex to bring some culture to their town by staging a Shakespeare play, which turns out to be controversial because Florida. The boys also do their part for society by waylaying a group of robed Klansmen heading to a rally so they can forcibly have their heads shaved by a Jewish student acting as an ersatz mohel. Sure enough, when the Klansmen are next seen, not only have they been shorn of their locks, but they’re stark naked as well, having been relieved of their modesty-preserving regalia.
A more pragmatic breed of KKKers is found in Michael Ritchie’s Fletch Lives (1989), in which they gather on the lawn of the Louisiana mansion the title character (Chevy Chase) has inherited from his great aunt to try to scare off the “undesirable carpetbagger.” Fletch is quick to don his own sheet and go amongst the hatemongers (using the assumed name Henry Himmler) to commiserate with their leader (Geoffrey Lewis), who bemoans the fact that their cross won’t burn and the person they’ve been sent to intimidate isn’t even home. “Hell, it’s ain’t what it used to be,” Lewis says, confiding that they’re not there of their own accord but have been contracted before being driven off by Fletch’s shotgun-toting caretaker (Cleavon Little again).
A little over a decade later, Joel and Ethan Coen brought the most tuneful Klan rally in film history to the screen in 2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? Having found fame of a sort as the Soggy Bottom Boys, the three escaped convicts at the saga’s center (George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson) take the place of the mob’s color guard in an effort to save their guitarist from being lynched. Despite being unmasked by a cyclopean Bible salesman they had previously encountered (John Goodman), the four of them do manage to effect an escape, bringing the gathering’s burning cross down on Goodman’s monster in the process.
The fact that Klansmen wear disguises at their gatherings makes it remarkably easy for interlopers to pass among them, as demonstrated by Miami cops Marcus Burnett and Mike Lowrey (Martin Lawrence and Will Smith) when they literally go undercover to bust some low-level drug dealers in the opening sequence of Michael Bay’s Bad Boys II (2003). A similar thing happens to the protagonists of 2008’s Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay when they stumble onto a KKK barbecue and have to overpower two drunk Klansmen and steal their outfits to blend in. When their ruse is discovered, though, the racist crackers reveal the depth of their ignorance by identifying Harold and Kumar as Mexicans.
But perhaps the purest expression of the mentality lurking within those pointy hats is the scene with the vigilante group in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012). Holding torches and riding into their enemy’s encampment while wearing white hoods, this posse of proto-night riders gets off track as soon as its leader, slave owner Big Daddy (Don Johnson), tries his own hood on for size and curses, “Damn, I can’t see f***ing s*** out of this thing.” The scene then devolves into an argument about how poorly made the hoods are and whether it’s safe to actually wear them while riding. “I think we all think the bags were a nice idea,” one says, attempting to be conciliatory. “I’m not pointing any fingers. They could have been better.” Not long after, the powwow is broken up by Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz) springing the trap he set for Big Daddy’s men and Django (Jamie Foxx) personally picking off the big man himself. The lesson here: You don’t always get to pick your battles, but when white supremacists come your way, it’s best to be prepared to put them in their place.
Craig J. Clark lives in Bloomington, Ind., whose Nazis are as bad as Illinois’.