Interview with BlacKkKlansman star John David Washington
Spike Lee’s latest film, BlacKkKlansman, is based on the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first African-American police officer in Colorado Springs. With the help of a white police officer (Adam Driver), Ron infiltrates the local Ku Klux Klan, becoming a confidant of the Imperial Wizard himself, David Duke (Topher Grace) and eventually becoming the leader of the local pack. BlacKkKlansman opens nationwide on Friday, August 10th.
I had the good fortune to interview John David Washington (son of two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington) about his role as Ron Stallworth in this amazing, true story.
Mike: Thank you for letting me interview you, John.
John David Washington: Thanks for interviewing me.
So this film is about Ron Stallworth, a black police officer in Colorado Springs who infiltrates the KKK in the mid-70s. I was amazed that this was a true story. That just shocked me.
John: Right, big time! Like Ron would say, ‘for real, for real.’
And it follows the real story pretty accurately. I mean they’re just a few liberties taken.
John: Yeah, it is a movie, so a few things are done to move the story along that didn’t happen. but the rest of it is what happened.
Did you talk to the real Ron Stallworth?
John: Yeah, I did.
Did he give you any advice?
John: Oh, yeah. He gave me an abundance of advice. I had numerous conversations with him, and he attended the table read. He showed us his Ku Klux Klan membership card to show us that the story was real. He was a great help to me in navigating this portion of his life. Also, what he helped me with was what happened to him before and after this event. What was really important for me was to understand how he came to this position. He was the first African-American cop in the ranks of Colorado Springs. That right there is a movie in its own right, much less the case that no one can believe. What I also got from talking to him was the support that he got from his chief and the other cops in his department, that didn’t look like him but believed in what he was doing. I loved that part of the film, and I am very excited to see how people respond to that aspect of the film. How they believed in numbers and in positivity, in purely protecting and serving your community, you can rid certain bad factors.
I loved the fact that when he sees the newspaper ad for new membership in the KKK and calls them, he uses his real name.
John: Ha, ha. Yeah, he said he didn’t think it would go further than the phone call. He wasn’t thinking but was just in the moment.
Talk a little about the conflicts that were going on with Ron at this time in his life. He wants to be a police officer and goes into it a little naive. And then he gets involved with the Black Power movement through a woman he begins dating. So there is this conflict going on between the establishment which he works for and the Black Power movement who see the police as the enemy.
John: I think, for one, the kind of stuff that he had to go through even before the case started. The ridicule, the rookie hazing but also the cultural thing that was happening. I think that Ron was surrounded by people that didn’t think like the Black Power woman that he started dating. He started opening up to different ideas. But you know it did have an Afro and brothers that sported an Afro, more often than not, there was a reason behind it. To hear the words at the rallies and starting to believe them I think opened him up to a new thinking. But he said in the film, he believes that he can change things from the inside. He is about his people and his community. I don’t know if he saw color, he just wanted to serve the men and women of his community, all the colors, black, white, or whatever. There was some conflict there, but more so, there was some other deep-rooted stuff to where he didn’t always see or feel conflict.
Besides talking to Ron, did you do any other research on the time period?
John: Oh, yeah. I loved the documentary Black Power Mix Tape. That’s a beautiful and fantastic documentary and more amazing is the fact that the guy that made the film is from Sweden. I watched some movies from the era like Superfly with Ron O’Neal. Man, that’s some ‘bad mama-jama.’ I listened to nothing but 70s music for three months. I watched Soul Train on YouTube. And I watched the six-part documentary series on the 70s on CNN, called The Seventies I didn’t listen to any hip-hop or R&B at all during that time.
I loved the scene where Ron is going over all the movies that each other likes with the woman he is interested in dating to get to understand her more. He makes her pick between black exploitation characters like Shaft and Foxy Brown.
John: That scene was real because I was kind of living it right then. So I meant all those words in that scene. I mean Curtis Mayfield is the man!
This is a film about race and what struck me in this film is not a lot has changed regarding race from the 70s until now. In my opinion, this is one of the main points of the film. Do you feel that way?
John: In the film, there are trigger words. Trigger words that make hatred feel comfortable. That was a way for Ron posing as a white man could infiltrate the KKK. Those words being used back then as shown in the film are being used today. I feel we have evolved as a people through hashtags and taking knees to talk and protest about issues, but it’s the same issues that we were dealing with in the 70s. Yeah, this film is a period piece, but those trigger words are just as powerful today as they were in the 70s.
One of the main supporting characters is David Duke, played by Topher Grace, who as the Imperial Wizard of the KKK, tried to bring the group into the mainstream. He ran for political office several times, making him and his platform seem legit, and he decided to reform the KKK, making many changes to the organization to make it more mainstream. One of the statements of this film is that David Duke is one of the reasons that the political system is so fractured today.
John: The KKK has a couple of resurgence in the history of the US. The movie they watch in the film, Birth of a Nation, that really rejuvenated the KKK movement back in the 20s. Then David Duke, who came off as a friendly, guy next door vibe that made the KKK seemingly less of a threat. But still Duke spoke those trigger words when he was talking to his members, and in the film, this is exposed. The film isn’t saying, hey, look at the bad guy, no, it’s saying pay attention to the words. There is a bunch of profanity in the film, but it’s not for shock value. Instead, it’s part of the hate language. Trigger words that will bring in the emotion of the moment.
Did this role change you in any way by exploring the issues we have discussed?
John: Yeah, it had a significant effect on me. I appreciate what detectives have to do. That banquet scene, where Ron, a black police officer has to protect the white supremacist, David Duke, was one of the hardest scenes I had to play. Right after shooting that scene, I told Spike, I can’t believe this happened. The tension of the scene was intense due to such great acting. We had to joke around and get our humanity back because that scene was so scary. What is interesting in that scene is that Ron had the law on his side and that’s what got him out of there. You can be on the side of the law and still be aware of what is happening to your people. Ron was a great American because he did it the right way, legally.
How was it working with Spike Lee?
John: I learned so much. He was like a little kid, so excited to shoot this film. He can be intimidated, and it would behoove you to know your stuff so you can move when he moves. You have to be able to use the art of ab libbing, which I love. You have to understand the moment and trust your instincts. The biggest compliment that he gave me, which gave me a massive boost of confidence, was that he didn’t really direct me. He would strip stuff down, and what didn’t work, he would just suggest how to block the scene. That gave me a significant boost of confidence that he would trust me with this role and I have never had an experience on a film like that.
It seems that this was a passion project for Spike.
John: I think all the films he has done are. He really loves filmmaking, and he loves to tell stories, and so do I. What was inspiring to me was where this was a man that has accomplished it all and still loves to make films. He hasn’t become too egotistical, he loves to be part of a team doing it together.
What struck me about this film is that it’s a Spike Lee film and has some of his signature touches in it, it also comes off as more of universal film, the kind that he really isn’t known for.
John: I think that’s the nature of the story, it’s not a suggestive film pointing fingers at the bad guy. You already know who the bad guys are, you make the conscious choice of what hate is. I think he did a great job of laying out these characters and let them tell the story.
I love the chemistry between you and Adam Driver, who plays your partner on the force. Your characters start clicking right from the first meet up. What is it like working with Adam?
John: He is the best. You can’t have an off day with Adam because he is always reading to work. He is such a professional. I was a big fan of him before working with him, and it was just a tremendous honor to work with him.
What do you want people to take from this film? This is a movie that will generate conversations, so what do you want the discussions to be about?
John: How do we change our language? How do we start the conversations about thesis trigger words? How do we eliminate those trigger words? I don’t know how to answer that, but I do know what this film can help identify; what hate is attracted to.
You went to Morehouse College here in Atlanta, right? Have you shot anything here yet?
John: Yeah I went to Morehouse for five years. I haven’t shot anything here yet but I look forward to it, so I can explore the city and see how it’s changed. Hopefully, I’ll shoot a film here around homecoming because that would be really cool.
Thanks so much, John and much success with the film.
John: Thank you!
BlacKkKlansman opens nationwide on Friday, August 10th.
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