When I first heard the synopsis for BlacKkKlansman—a black police officer infiltrates the Colorado chapter of the Ku Klux Klan with the help of a white, Jewish surrogate—I thought to myself, “Wow, you can’t make this shit up.”
Turns out, they didn’t.
About five years ago, The Root interviewed the real-life Ron Stallworth for the debut of his memoir, Black Klansman. Now, Stallworth’s book has been transformed into the film that has earned Spike Lee his first Academy Award nomination for directing. John David Washington—also known as the man who stole his father’s voice like Ursula did Ariel—steps into the lead role of Stallworth, opposite his white surrogate (portrayed by Adam Driver).
I chatted with Stallworth about the adaptation, which also has an Oscar nomination, his feelings about Lee helming his story on film, and his perspective on the sociopolitically tense relationship between the police force and the black community.
“First of all, I’m honored that my story is on the books—like over the hump in terms of getting the Best Picture and Best Director nominations,” Stallworth exclaimed. “It thrills me to the core that this story was the one that got [Lee] the acclaim that he should have been getting all along. I’m very happy with what he did, especially the ending. I can’t imagine this movie being done by anyone other than Spike Lee.”
Any screenwriter knows the challenge of adapting an already existing work, hoping to maintain the perfect balance of transforming the work so that it is suitable for the screen without bastardizing the original creator’s message. Stallworth says his favorite parts of BlacKkKlansman were the disco scene and the climactic scene where Washington’s Stallworth finally meets David Duke (Topher Grace) face-to-face.
In case you need a refresher on that pivotal scene: After conducting several phone calls with the organization’s leader while posing as a white racist, suddenly Stallworth was serving as the man’s security detail. And that hilarious picture he took with a smiling, unknowing Duke? It was a payoff one would seemingly only see in movies. But it was real. Stallworth lived it.
Though the film centers on the extreme source of racism embodied by Duke’s gang of white hooded bigots, Stallworth told me hopes the film shows just how little things have changed. Lee made that clear, with the visceral series of closing shots revisiting the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va.
“[Racism is] lying in the shadows, rooted under the ground and a catalyst emerges. Today, that catalyst occupies the White House,” Stallworth noted.
BlacKkKlansman further explores the adverse relationship between cops and the Black Panther Party in the 1970s, a stark reflection of the equally tense relationship between police and the Black Lives Matter movement now. The tension is not only thick; it’s deadly. It may present an inner conflict for any cop (current or former) to unequivocally support BLM, but Stallworth put it plain:
“First of all, I am a supporter of Black Lives Matter,” Stallworth affirmed. “I believe the group is necessary. They’re the next generation of activists that we as a people need to advance the race even further. I support what they’re doing [to] unite the community, which includes law enforcement. I reject the notion that is spread by Fox News and by a lot of my colleagues in law enforcement who believe that they are domestic terrorists and cop haters. I believe that you have to get everyone involved to make a difference and that includes members of the white community.”
One of the biggest criticisms of the film involved the positive hero narrative spin on a cop, especially in an era of heightened police brutality. The issue was compounded by Lee’s work as a consultant on an NYPD ad campaign, causing many to question his motives in connection with BlacKkKlansman.
“It’s a made-up story in which the false parts of it to try to make a cop the protagonist in the fight against racist oppression,” Sorry To Bother You director Boots Riley tweeted in a lengthy critique, soon after BlacKkKlansman’s release. Lee responded, “It’s being put [out] while Black Lives Matter is a discussion, and this is not coincidental. There is a viewpoint behind it.”
I asked Stallworth: What does he believes about the “there are good cops” selling point of the film? Are they really “good” if they’re not holding the brothers in their blue-coded fraternity accountable?
“There are bad cops,” Stallworth said. “The police are a microcosm of the community that they serve and they should be. You have good people in the community and you have bad people. The same thing is reflected in the makeup of a police department, which is why you need to have an appropriate number in a police department to respect the diversity of the community that they serve.”
“[Police] have a job to do and hopefully they’re following the constitutional guidelines, which they swore an oath to,” Stallworth continued. “If they do right, there will be peace in that community. Sometimes you have a bad apple and when we find that bad apple you need to root it out so the whole barrel doesn’t rot.”
A black man basically making a fool out of the KKK in 1979 is a great display of black excellence, so I had to ask Stallworth my routine question—what was the blackest moment he experienced in his infiltration?
“When I was undercover in the nightclub with Stokely Carmichael ... [also known as] Kwame Ture,” Stallworth recalled. “I got caught up in his speech about black power and picking up the gun and whatnot ... what he was saying made sense to me. [I yelled] ‘Right on Brother!’ and ‘Black Power’ and all that until I realized I was there to be in an adversarial role with this gentleman tonight.”
The other time is that aforementioned legendary photo with Duke, which Stallworth unfortunately no longer has in his possession.
“I lost that years ago!” he exclaimed.
He may not have the photo anymore, but he still has the memories of one of the greatest stories ever told. So great, I’m still flabbergasted by the fact that it really happened.