'I Wasn't Sure If It Was True': John David Washington On The 'BlacKkKlansman' Story | WYPR

'I Wasn't Sure If It Was True': John David Washington On The 'BlacKkKlansman' Story

Aug 11, 2018

A new movie from director Spike Lee has a premise that's almost impossible to believe.

It's 1978 and a black police detective in Colorado Springs, Colo., manages to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. He not only gets a membership card straight from Grand Wizard David Duke, but he's also asked to lead a local chapter because he's everything they are looking for — loyal, smart and a true believer.

He establishes a relationship with David Duke over the phone. And for meetings in person, he recruits a white co-worker to go in his place.

It sounds incredible, but the story is based on the account of a real person. The film draws heavily from the 2014 book Black Klansman by the real-life detective, Ron Stallworth.

In BlacKkKlansman, the role of Stallworth is played by John David Washington.

"Of course, I thought it was crazy and I wasn't sure if it was true," Washington says in an interview with NPR's Michel Martin for All Things Considered. "It sounded like a familiar skit of Dave Chappelle, that he did years ago. Until I did the research, I wasn't really sure of how true it was. And then when I did the research, I was just so astonished."

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Interview Highlights

On spending time with the real Ron Stallworth, in preparation for the role

It's interesting. Spike [Lee] kept me from him for months leading up to the first day of shooting. I feel like he did that on purpose, but once I got to meet him at the table read — it's crazy — he passed around his membership card. The actual Ku Klux Klan clan membership card, he is a member of the Ku Klux Klan! He passed it around for us at the table read and it was a trip.

For some reason, holding that card made all the stories and the research seem more real than ever. He was very helpful and he was able to share with me, not just his approach tactically to the investigation and the sting operation, but what he was going through in those times — what it meant to be a black man in the '70s in Colorado Springs. So all those kinds of things gave me insight and helped me carve out the performance.

On Ron Stallworth's gratitude to his white co-workers

He was a man of his mission. He totally believed in what he was doing. He couldn't get too emotional and stay in character to pursue this man and take down this organization of hate. He was also very thankful and acknowledged the people that were white in his department that helped him, that believed in him. He wasn't by himself on this. He was supported and it took that kind of support to make this mission a successful one.

On learning about the character's commonalities with Jewish people

In the initial phone call to the Klan, he incorporates everybody that he hates. Unless you're not pure white Aryan blood running through the veins everybody can get it, everybody is hated, everybody is inferior. I thought it was important to have all of that in there, and it was a good learning experience for me. If people are sometimes torn between being Jewish and trying to fit in, we have a lot in common in that way.

On different perceptions of law enforcement, and gaining new insights about the profession

That divide is generational and it's continuous. But I was ignorant to it as well, until I did my research and got to spend some time with police officers, and got to spend time with Ron Stallworth specifically, and realized it's a really a thankless job.

There's men and women out there protecting and serving, doing it the right way, that aren't talked about. People in their department do their job the wrong way, it's going to get out there. It's going viral now. I love what he says — I don't want to give the movie away — but he addresses that specifically to the love interest, and says that there can be change from the inside. And I believe that's true.

The men and women serving and protecting, doing it the right way, I want them to be proud of this when they see it. I want them to stand up and give themselves a pat on the back — the ones that are doing it the right way, that is. And maybe now we can start, instead of generalizing our frustrations about the misconduct, maybe start recognizing the ones that are, and highlighting them just as much as we're highlighting the negative parts of how police are doing the job. I hope that's what this film can bring.

The audio story was produced and edited by Dustin DeSoto and Janaya Williams.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LAKSHMI SINGH, HOST:

Finally, today, a new movie from director Spike Lee has a premise that sounds - well, it sounds crazy, impossible to believe. It's 1978, and a black police detective in Colorado Springs, Colo., manages to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. He not only gets a membership card straight from David Duke, he's asked to lead a local chapter because he's everything - loyal, smart, a true believer.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLACKKKLANSMAN")

JOHN DAVID WASHINGTON: (As Ron Stallworth) Hello. This is Ron Stallworth calling. Who am I speaking with?

TOPHER GRACE: (As David Duke) This is David Duke.

WASHINGTON: (As Ron Stallworth) Grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. That David Duke?

GRACE: (As David Duke) Last time I checked. What can I do you for?

WASHINGTON: (As Ron Stallworth) Well, since you asked, I hate blacks. I hate Jews, Mexicans and Irish, Italians and Chinese. But my mouth to God's ears, I really hate those black rats and anyone else, really, that doesn't have pure white Aryan blood running through their veins.

GRACE: (As David Duke) I'm happy to be talking to a true white American.

WASHINGTON: (As Ron Stallworth) God bless white America.

SINGH: He establishes a relationship over the phone for meetings in person. He recruits a white co-worker to go in his place. I said it sounds incredible, but the story is actually based on the account of a real person. And the film draws heavily from the 2014 book of the same name by the real detective, Ron Stallworth. And it's produced by "Get Out's" Jordan Peele. My colleague, Michel Martin, sat down with actor John David Washington, who plays the role of Ron Stallworth.

MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Mr. Washington, thank you so much for speaking with us.

WASHINGTON: What's up? Hello, everybody.

MARTIN: So when you heard about this story, tell the truth, did you think it was crazy?

WASHINGTON: Of course, I thought it was crazy. And I wasn't sure if it was true. It sounded even like a familiar skit of Dave Chappelle that he did years ago. So until I did the research, I wasn't really sure of how true it was. And then, when I did the research, I was just - I was so astonished.

MARTIN: And you got to spend some time with Ron Stallworth himself, the actual person. What was he like...

WASHINGTON: Yes, yes. Well, it's interesting. Spike Lee kind of kept me from him months leading up to the first day of shooting or, really, the rehearsal space. And I felt like he did that on purpose. But once I got to meet him, I met him at the table read. And he - it's crazy. He passed around his membership card, the actual Ku Klux Klan membership card. He is a member of the Ku Klux Klan (laughter). And he passed it around for us at the table read, and it was a trip. And, for some reason, holding that card made all the stories and the research just seem even more real than ever.

And he was very helpful. He was able to share with me not just his approach, tactically, to the investigation, to the sting operation but what he was going through in those times, what it meant to be a black man in the '70s, in Colorado Springs. So all those kinds of things that - gave me insight and helped me kind of carve out the performance.

MARTIN: You know, in the film, you ask David Duke, who's played by Topher Grace, how he would know if he's talking to a real white person. His response is that black people pronounce certain words differently. Now, I want to tell you that in 2006, NPR - my then-colleague Ed Gordon interviewed the real Ron Stallworth. And this is what he said. I just want to play it for you. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

RON STALLWORTH: I asked him how he could tell that he was talking to a black person. His response to me was, well, I can tell that you're white because you don't talk like a black man. He said, you talk like a very smart, intellectual white man. And I can tell by the way you pronounce certain words. I said, give me an example. He said, blacks tend to pronounce the word R. He said, they say it - they pronounce it ara (ph). And he said, I could tell by listening to you that you're not black because you do not pronounce that word in that manner.

MARTIN: Isn't that crazy?

WASHINGTON: Yeah...

MARTIN: And you - there are a couple of things about this that I wanted to ask you. First of all, I don't want to ask you to portray every conversation you had with Ron Stallworth. But I was curious about how you absorbed his manner of having to take all that in. How do you take all that in?

WASHINGTON: Well, again, he was so generous with all that information. Some stuff I really don't believe that's - it should be between us. I don't want to share unless he wants to share it. But what I can tell you is how he was a man of his mission. He just totally believed in what he was doing. He couldn't get too emotional and stay in character to pursue this man, to just take down this organization of hate.

He was also very thankful and acknowledged the people that were white in his department that helped him, that believed in him. He wasn't by himself on this. He was supported, and it took that kind of support to make this mission a successful one.

MARTIN: You know, in fact, one of the interesting elements of this film is the buddy dynamic between you and Flip Zimmerman. He's a police officer. That's the character in the film. He's Jewish. It comes out that he's Jewish. He doesn't necessarily identify with being Jewish, and he has to be convinced that infiltrating the Klan is a good idea. Your relationship in the film is a big part of - I just want to play a clip of one of your conversations.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLACKKKLANSMAN")

ADAM DRIVER: (As Flip Zimmerman) For you, it's a crusade. For me, it's a job. It's not personal nor should it be.

WASHINGTON: (As Ron Stallworth) Why haven't you bought into this?

DRIVER: (As Flip Zimmerman) Why should I?

WASHINGTON: (As Ron Stallworth) Because you're Jewish, brother, the so-called chosen people. You've been passing for a WASP, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, cherry pie, hot dog white boy.

MARTIN: Flip Zimmerman's played by Adam Driver. And one of the points that this film makes is that racism affects everybody, not just black people and...

WASHINGTON: Right.

MARTIN: ...That we need everybody to address it. And I was interested in your thoughts about that.

WASHINGTON: Yeah. In the phone call, the initial phone call to the Klan when - he incorporates everybody that he hates. Unless you're not pure white Aryan (laughter) blood running through your veins, everybody can get it. Everybody's hated. Everybody's inferior. So I thought it was important to have all of that and emphasize that in there. And it was a good learning experience for me. Like, if people are sometimes torn between being Jewish and trying to fit in, then we have a lot in common in that way.

MARTIN: You know, in the spirit of full disclosure, I come from a policing family. There are six cops in my family...

WASHINGTON: Ah. OK.

MARTIN: ...And I found it very both moving and interesting how your character stands up for that role. I mean, he's been called a sellout. He's being...

WASHINGTON: Right.

MARTIN: ...Basically challenged. Like, how - if you're for us, how can you be with them?

WASHINGTON: Right.

MARTIN: And I was interested in how you kind of responded to that idea...

WASHINGTON: Well, the issue - that issue, that divide has been - and it's generational. Like, it's continuous. But I - you know, I was ignorant to it as well until I did my research and got to spend some time with police officers, got to spend time with Ron Stallworth, specifically, and realized it's a - really, a thankless job. There's men and women out there, protect and serve and doing it the right way that aren't talked about. People in their department do their job the wrong way, it's going to get out there. It's going viral now.

I love what he says - I don't want to give the movie away. But he addresses that, specifically, to the love interest - who was terrific, by the way - and says that there can be change from the inside, you know? And I believe that's true. And people that are out there, the men and women serving and protecting, doing it the right way, I want them to be proud of this when they see it. I want them to stand up and give themselves a pat on the back, the ones that are doing it the right way, that is, you know?

And maybe, now, we can, start instead of generalizing our frustrations about the misconduct, maybe start recognizing the ones that are and highlighting them just as much as we're highlighting the negative parts of how police are doing their job. I hope that's what this film can bring.

MARTIN: That was John David Washington talking to us about his role in the movie "BlacKkKlansman." He plays the lead, a detective named Ron Stallworth, who actually manages to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. John David Washington, thanks so much for talking with us.

WASHINGTON: Thank you. Appreciate it. Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.