UNDERCOVER WITH THE KKK: Southern Unrest In Your Living Room

The subject of the Ku Klux Klan is a difficult one to broach in the world of entertainment.  It’s got all the heat you could want from a controversial subject and yet it is difficult to portray in way that isn’t broad. It’s all too easy for films on the subject to lapse into clichés or a sordid exploitation of the violence and race-baiting inherent in portraying the Ku Klux Klan.  As a result, movies often have an easier time treating the K.K.K. as a joke, as in Bustin’ Loose or Porky’s II: The Next Day, than they do trying to portray it in a serious manner.

Undercover With The K.K.K. is an interesting exception to this unfortunate trend.  It takes its basis from a memoir by Gary Thomas Rowe, a civilian who infiltrated the K.K.K. on behalf of the F.B.I. to gather evidence on the organization.  Unfortunately for the film’s producers, Rowe was prosecuted for participating in the murder of a pro-civil rights activist shortly before this film was broadcast, resulting in the hasty addition of a prologue featuring Robert Stack and some narration at the end that acknowledges Rowe’s criminal activities.

That said, those unfortunate circumstances don’t negate the worth of Undercover With The K.K.K. In fact, it’s actually quite interesting.  The film is designed to play to the same kind of audience that enjoyed the Walking Tall movies, portraying Rowe as a guy who wants to do good but quickly finds himself in over his head.  The film begins in a suitable grim and pulpy fashion, with Rowe – effectively acted by 1970’s t.v. regular Don Meredith – participating in a Klan swearing-in ceremony.  It’s got the flaming cross, the drunken southerners and all the frantic race-baiting talk you’d expect from such a moment.

From there, the film offers a surprisingly downbeat take on Rowe and his activities.  To maintain his cover, he has to participate in Klan tactics that requires him to attack innocents and sometimes get himself hurt.  For example, there are gritty, intense-for-t.v. scenes where the Klan trashes a restaurant that his opened its doors to the black community and a big riot in which the KKK descends upon a bus station where civil rights protestors are trying to exit a bus.

On a more personal level, being an undercover K.K.K. man causes havoc in his personal wife.  He starts to drink heavily and is tempted by white-power groupies, resulting in a painful split from his wife, Billie Ruth (Margaret Blye, a Walking Tall series alumnus).  He also finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place in that his K.K.K. superiors (portrayed by the effective trio of James Wainwright, Albert Salmi and Clifton James) are perpetually suspicious and always demanding tests of loyalty but Rowe’s F.B.I. contact (Ed Lauter) offers little sympathy and keeps pushing him to pursue situations of greater risk.  After the murder of civil rights activist Liuzzo, Rowe is finally pulled from active duty to testify in trials.  However, things just shift into a different form of difficulty: he’s branded a Judas by K.K.K. members and defense attorneys alike as his former friends try to have him killed.

The end result is interesting in that it doesn’t portray Rowe or his work as heroic: instead, he is portrayed as a flawed man whose desire to be a hero results in the piecemeal destruction of his life and identity.  The K.K.K. are rightly regarded with scorn in the narrative but the film also surprisingly critical of the F.B.I.: the Lauter character is depicted as a smooth-talking opportunist who doesn’t really care what happens to Rowe as long as he gets a chance at some legal actions against the Klan.

This complex, often cynical tone works well thanks to a combination of taut storytelling and smart casting.  Lane Slate’s script piles on the action and suspense but makes room for character development to communicate the material’s pessimistic take on the cost of the pursuit of justice.  The directing chores were handled by Barry Shear, a t.v. vet who occasionally made great feature films like Wild In The Streets and Across 110th Street, and his direction is appropriately slick and tough.  He pushes the violence envelope as far as late-1970’s t.v. will allow and creates a convincing southern-fried atmosphere through some good location shooting.

Shear also gets strong performances from a committed cast.  Meredith had previously proven his acting chops in a lot of cop shows, including some strong work in Police Story, and he acquits himself nicely here.  Aside from one rather cartoonish drunk scene, he convincingly sells both the good side and the character flaws of Rowe.  Wainwright is all steely cool as the K.K.K. chief and Lauter draws on his ability to be both sleazy and darkly humorous as the manipulative FBI man.  Blye does nice work as the neglected wife and Salmi and James effectively explore the dark side of the good-ol’-boy archetypes they’ve played in the past.

All in all, Undercover With The K.K.K. is one of the more intriguing portraits of the Ku Klux Klan in that sordid subject’s history – and its dark take on justice and the legal process give it added heft.  It weighs in at a b-movie level, but a very solid and well-observed b-movie.  If you like southern-fried crime tales along the lines of the Walking Tall series, this is a worthwhile t.v.-size excursion into the form.

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