While fans wring hands over the fate of the on-again, off-again, back-on-again Man of Steel 2 movie, a new motion picture is in the works that will pit Superman against the greatest foe he ever faced.
Hint: It ain’t Lex Luthor.
Deadline reported April 28 that executive producer Marco Vicini is putting up the bucks for a joint project of Lotus Entertainment and PaperChase Films that will adapt for movie screens Superman vs. the Ku Klux Klan, the 2012 young adult non-fiction book by journalist Rick Bowers that chronicled how the Adventures of Superman radio program did more to undermine the Klan’s influence than decades of law enforcement.
Deadline says the book will be adapted for the screen by Katherine Lindberg, writer/director of the 2001 movie, Rain, and script supervisor on such flicks as Wet Hot American Summer. A release date has not been announced and casting is still a ways off.
Still, the story of how a series of 1946 episodes on a kiddie show helped bring down the burgeoning power of the white supremacist movement is a powerful one. The story first entered the pubic consciousness thanks to a chapter in the 2005 multi-million seller, Freakonomics, entitled “How Is the Ku Klux Klan Like a Group of Real-Estate Agents?” in which they related the theory of “information asymmetry,” comparing the upper-hand one side generally has in property transfers to the secrecy and ritual that made the Klan such a potent force in early 20th century politics.
“We argued that the Klan’s secrecy — its rituals, made-up language, passwords and so on — formed an information asymmetry that furthered its aim of terrorizing blacks and others,” Freak authors Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt wrote in a 2006 New York Times magazine article.
And in their book, Dubner and Levitt described how Stetson Kennedy, one of the original social justice warriors shared information he had gathered on the KKK with producers of the Superman radio show, and how those secrets, once widely disseminated, utterly undermined the Klan as a mighty sword of political force, reducing it to the level of laughable caricature.
Bower’s book went beyond how that story serves as an example of economic theory to bring the tale to life for young readers. It chronicles the first decade of Superman’s life, from his birth in the attic bedroom of prototypical sci-fi geek Jerry Siegel, a character initially rejected by dozens of publishers, through to the characters stratospheric rise as one of the most popular public icons of the post-war years. Contrasted to this is the story of the KKK, from its roots as an anti-Reconstruction movement in the years after the Civil War, to its flame-out in the 1880s, and its re-emergence in the 1920s as a national organization poised on the cusp of gaining real traction for its anti-everything cause. Then, in the second half of the book, the two sides collide in a 16-part radio serial, “Clan of the Fiery Cross,” broadcast from June 10-25, 1946.
In the story, Jimmy Olsen — a character created for the radio program, who only later made his way to the comics pages — is managing a baseball team and replaces the pitcher with a more-talented newcomer less racially pure than the previous king of the mound. The former pitcher then falls under the influence of the Clan, which elects to intimidate the “insufficiently American” replacement. Jimmy takes his troubles to Clark Kent, and soon enough Superman is squaring off against the goons in the white hoods.
The serial is credited with stripping the real-life Klan of its mystique and almost overnight, it has been said, KKK recruitment dried to a trickle, particularly in the Northeast.
All 16 chapters of the serial are on YouTube. Here’s Chapter 1 to start you off.
Numerous sources claim that, within two years of the Superman radio broadcasts, people were no longer cowering in fear of the Klan, instead showing up at their rallies to mock and heap scorn on the once powerful group, whose membership had, at its peak, pervaded all the way to city halls and police department precincts across the nation.
The story of Superman’s take-down of the KKK, as related by Bowers, is, according to a 2012 Kirkus review, one that makes it “an important book, shedding light on a time when the creators of popular culture treated success as a public trust, optimistically believing that they had both the means and the obligation to create a finer world.”
Certainly, it’s a tale that clearly resonates with the backers of the new movie.
“The story behind Superman vs. the KKK really struck a chord with me,” executive producer Vicini said. “Right away I knew I wanted to re-live it by being a part of the nonviolent resistance against oppression. It is a great honor to be able to embark on such a relevant and meaningful project with such a devoted and highly experienced team of like-minded individuals.”
“The themes of this true story fall right in line with the type of stories that inspired me to want to make movies in the first place,” Lotus Entertainment Co-Chairman Bill Johnson said.
“Fighting the forces of evil with brain over brawn, artists taking down bullies and the power of a good piece of content, it’s a real case of truth being cooler than fiction,” producer Marc Rosen said.
The story, if crafted well by Lindberg, is one that promises an almost instant Oscar nod from any actor lucky enough to be cast as Kennedy. After all, while he undoubtedly did much good, he was also tireless self-promoter and inveterate exaggerator of his own accomplishments. As Dubner and Levitt observe, there’s reason to believe that most of the details in his 1954 book, I Rode With the Ku Klux Klan (later re-issued as The Klan Unmasked) are simply made up, or else extrapolated from real interviews he conducted. It’s doubtful Kennedy ever did actually infiltrate the Klan. In comic books terms, Kennedy’s character would seem to fall somewhere between Bob Kane and Fredric Wertham, with a bit of William Moulton Marston thrown in. Except that Kennedy was actually on to something and, unlike Wertham, he wasn’t just barking up a nut tree. Also, unlike Marston, he wasn’t Pervy McPervalot. So, there’s that. Still, it will take a top-flight actor to pull off the subtleties and contradictions of his conflicted inner workings.
Of course, real comics fans like you and me will have to hope Lindberg can correct some of the deficiencies in Bowers’ book. As reviewer Jack Feerick noted, “while the Klan material is right in his wheelhouse — Bowers is a nationally recognized scholar of the civil rights movement — his grasp on the history of comics and science-fiction fandom is shaky and riddled with basic factual errors.”
If Superman vs. the KKK can resolve those deficiencies, while compressing a timeline for a two-hour movie that encapsulates the full history of Superman and the KKK, along with production of the radio show (which one source claims only ever included on genuine piece of KKK proprietary symbololgy), along with the resulting fallout, without changing too many of the facts for narrative effect, it should be a film worthy of your hard-earned for the price of admission.
Maybe even moreso than Man of Steel 2.