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With the exception of their earliest film appearance - the hotly contested glory-to-the-Klan scenes in D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation - radical-right groups have typically been played for laughs (the Illinois Nazis in The Blues Brothers) or for horror (Costa-Gavras's Betrayal, Oliver Stone's Talk Radio). Blood in the Face is refreshingly free of such reduction, and all the more disconcerting for it. Planned by James Ridgeway, a correspondent for the Village Voice and the author of a book on Aryan supremacy groups, and co-directed by Ridgeway and filmmakers Anne Bohlen (who worked on Roger & Me) and Kevin Rafferty (The Atomic Cafe), the film approaches the topic with few preconceptions. The filmmakers seem to have merely driven out to Klan rallies and American Nazi Party conventions, set up their cameras and boom mikes, and asked the organizations' members to explain themselves.
And explain themselves they do. White supremacist thinking seems founded on a logically bankrupt mix of majority entitlement and minority rage, the fear that the "rightful" white heirs to the world's political and economic resources are being squeezed out by pesky, racially diverse interlopers. Appalled by the intrusion, supremacist groups seek to protect their right to interact only with whites, as well as to perpetuate the pure white culture (Liberace, maybe? Wonder Bread?). But that's not all. They also want the right to use violence to accomplish their objectives. Asked what he hopes to be doing in the service of the Aryan cause, a young (armed) man replies hopefully, "Smashing skulls of communists, executing race traitors, shooting on sight anyone we don't think is white." It's purity, no compromise, and it makes me proud to be a few shades shy of lily.
As troubling and reprehensible as such blind malevolence is, there's also a great deal of black comedy, not in the package of beliefs so much as the delivery. How can you keep from chuckling derisively at a subculture in which a man decked out in traditional Scottish garb politely requests that cars be reparked to clear the alternate cross-burning field? Through the Klan weddings and rally announcements (delivered by a megaphone-enhanced announcer who sounds eerily like Woodstock farmer Max Yasgur), the absurdity mounts. Jerry Falwell is considered a Jew because he supports the existence of Israel. The future of the nation might lie in a plan to divide North America racially, leaving the southeast for blacks, the southwest for Hispanics, and opening up a footprint-shape white paradise in the Pacific Northwest. And what of the toothless old man who explains that of all those who claim humanity, only those white enough to blush have valid membership? (This "blood in the face" litmus test for racial purity gives the film its title.)
Far from limiting itself to bilious perimeter kooks, Blood in the Face is equally concerned with fascist figures who develop a mainstream political voice. Some central characters emerge, including influential Michigan hate-pastor Bob Miles ("Since we're all racists, and that's a crime in America," he tells an assembly, "if you have to do the time, don't regret the crime") and David Duke, the Louisiana state representative-senatorial hopeful-erstwhile Klansman. But the most fascinating is George Lincoln Rockwell, the founder of the American Nazi Party. Dead since 1967, when a Nazi disciple shot him in an Arlington, Virginia, Laundromat, Rockwell establishes his presence through archival footage. Pulling on his pipe like a paragon of warmth-and-hearth fatherhood (George Norman Rockwell, anyone?), speaking calmly and articulately, the former adman likens Hitler to Christ and himself to St. Paul while delivering zingers such as "I'd rather gas queers than anyone else" and "Compared to the aborigine in Africa who just ate his own grandmother, I'm Superman."
Compared to the super-slick politicos, the other right-makes-right adherents come off like escapees from the Nazi Clown Academy, and their hate so transparently proceeds from their own lack of self-esteem that they are ruefully laughable. A wizened old man in a peaked sorcerer's hat yammers on about how black men can't this and black men can't that. His harangue is deadly dull (or maybe I was just transfixed by his hat, which makes him look like the Cookie Crisp wizard) until an off-camera voice asks him where he grew up. "In an orphan's home," he answers, his eyes sliding sideways as if he's surveying escape routes. Another subject admits that she has never had any bad experiences with other racial groups and learned to hate "through studying and reading."
That's the greatest accomplishment of Blood in the Face, that it strips away the layers of monster myth and exposes these hatemongers as frustrated, weak-willed losers who feel compelled to don uniforms for power and chase scapegoats to deflect the pain of failure. That isn't to say they're harmless - the husband of one unassuming woman, for instance, is serving a jail term for the execution-style murder of radio-talk-show host Alan Berg, the real-life incident that partially inspired Talk Radio. But after hearing "the ethnic threat" invoked a half-dozen times, you'll start to realize how much of the hate is based on pocketbook envy. Bob Miles, perhaps the most intelligent (and consequently, the most dangerous) representative of the right, says that most of the new Klan recruits in Michigan came from the faltering auto industry, and predicts that the failing economy will cough up many more candidates in years to come. It's enough to make you blush.
BLOOD IN THE FACE
Directed by Anne Bohlen, Kevin Rafferty, and James Ridgeway.
Opens Friday at the Astor Cinema, 4120 Laguna St., Coral Gables; 445-0202
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