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Spike Lee's 'BlacKkKlansman' Was Based On This Real-Life Cop

A still from BlacKkKlansman, with Topher Grace as David Duke and John David Washington as Ron Stallworth.
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By John Horn with Marialexa Kavanaugh

Black police officer Ron Stallworth went undercover to investigate the Ku Klux Klan, pretending to be a white man as he developed a phone relationship with the Klan's Grand Wizard, David Duke. We talked with both the real Stallworth and John David Washington, the actor who plays him in BlacKkKlansman.

In the 1970s, Stallworth became the first black officer in the Colorado Springs police department. He went undercover to investigate the Ku Klux Klan and tried to stop the hate group, working with a white colleague named Chuck.

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The real Ron Stallworth cultivated and maintained a phone relationship with KKK Grand Wizard David Duke, while Chuck did the field work of attending actual Klan meetings. He essentially became the white embodiment of Ron Stallworth.

BlacKkKlansman walks a line between funny moments and the dark realities of the Klan's legacy -- including the group's potential for violence. Those Klan meetings were tense and loaded with danger.

The movie gives you that feel, with the Klansmen portrayed as having little intelligence -- but large numbers of weapons. The film goes on to draw a modern parallel, ending with graphic footage from the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville last August.

Ron Stallworth attends the BlacKkKlansman New York premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on July 30, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

Now is the only time the movie could have been made, according to Stallworth. Part of the reason for that: Donald Trump.

"If it had been made two or three years earlier, it wouldn't have the impact that it's having right now in the public mind, and they haven't even seen it yet for the most part," Stallworth said. "Because Duke wanted to achieve high political office, and he wanted to do that from the standpoint of promoting his Klan ideology. He didn't do it. He got as high as the Louisiana House of Representatives, but he ran for VP once and president once. David Duke wanted to be where Donald Trump is, and so the movie is very, very contemporary, even though it is events that took place in the past."

(To listen to the full interview, check out The Frame's podcast.)

The movie isn't just about the KKK as a historical artifact -- it's about those same forces over time.

"I think that what Spike did beautifully in executing, was how generational hate is, the language of it, and the resurgence of all these forces that promote that hate," Washington said. "We see David Duke who put a new face on it, a new neighborly nice white man face on hate, and then the groups today."

But while the movie deals with big issues, Washington said that the movie's just laying out what happened -- not being suggestive about fixing bigotry.

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"There are strong messages in it, but the package and delivery of those messages as an entertainment form are very detailed in the way that only Spike could do it," Washington said. "I love when films do that. They're not just hitting you over the head with a listen, you should be taking this in. As an audience member, I don't really want to be told what to believe -- whether that be the bad guy or the good guy. I want to decide that for myself."

Topher Grace stars as David Duke in Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman . (Photo by David Lee/Focus Features)

Stallworth's a liiiiittle bit biased, but he says the movie is Spike Lee in classic form.

"I want to point out that to me Malcolm X was the best movie he ever made. I love Malcolm X. And I think he surpassed himself in putting this movie together," Stallworth said, "because he was able to weave the historical thread between the Confederacy, to Charlottesville, to David Duke, to Donald Trump. And I think Spike is a master at doing what he does."

Washington wanted to make sure he accurately represented Stallworth, so he went deep in trying to understand what it meant to be a black man in the late '60s and the '70s.

"I cut out all R&B and hip-hop for a couple months, and I would go to sleep to YouTube clips of Soul Train every night," Washington said. "I had an extensive playlist dedicated to music of that time. I watched Superfly on repeat. I had a whole bunch of documentaries -- one specifically was the Black Power Mixtape."

That helped Washington understand the times, before meeting Stallworth.

"And then when I got to meet Ron at the table read, and he passed around the KKK membership card, it sort of brought it all together from the book," Washington said. "Then separate from the book, I just wanted to talk to the man about what he liked. He listened to music too, ya know? He's a person."

Adam Driver stars as Flip Zimmerman (the movie version of Stallworth's real-life partner Chuck) and John David Washington as Ron Stallworth in Spike Lee's BlacKkKLansman . (Photo by David Lee/Focus Features)

Washington tried to make sure that his role went beyond just mimicking the real man.

"I basically asked him for his spirit and his soul for a couple months. And he was so generous, and rented it out to me," Washington said.

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