In BlacKkKlansman, filmmaker Spike Lee tells the true story of Ron Stallworth, a black undercover cop with the Colorado State Police Department who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in 1979 with the help of a white officer. In 2014, Stallworth released his memoir, Black Klansman, on his experience investigating the KKK. The book was adapted into Lee’s new joint, which stars John David Washington (TV’s Ballers) as Stallworth.
During a tour stop in San Antonio last week, the real Stallworth sat down with the Current at Alamo Drafthouse to talk about the new film, how it speaks to today’s race issues and a surprise phone call he received last month.
Do you consider BlacKkKlansman an angry film?
It depends on what you mean by angry. If you look at any of Spike Lee’s movies, I think an argument can be made that there appears to be anger. You never know what is in the mind of the director. I didn’t see [BlacKkKlansman] as an angry movie. I saw it as a good portrayal of the actual events that took place. It happened exactly as it was portrayed, with some minor creative license.
Can you give me some examples of that creative license?
Well, some of the timeline was changed, which always happens in movies. Some of the humor was downplayed. We laughed more during this investigation than what is portrayed in the movie. Some of the stuff that was happening was hilarious. We just kept saying, “What a bunch of bozos!” But as much as we laughed, we never lost sight of the fact that [the KKK was] dead serious about the burning of crosses, domestic acts of terrorism and furthering their agenda.
Was writing your memoir a cathartic experience for you?
Going back to your question about this being an angry film, it’s funny because when I finished the manuscript, I gave it to a [police officer] friend to read, so he could give me his professional opinion. The first thing he asked me after he read it was, “You were pretty angry, weren’t you?” I didn’t think I was angry, but as I reread it, I could see where my anger toward certain people came out.
What kinds of conversations did you have with John David about how he would portray you?
John David and I had about three or four phone conversations during filming, and we texted a lot. He had a lot of questions about character development. Spike told him not to “copy Ron.” He said what he was going to try to do was channel my essence. The only criticism I had was that I didn’t have an afro like they display in the film. My afro was only about an inch high.
How do you think the film speaks to the racial tension we are currently experiencing in America?
It speaks to the idiot in the White House who is responsible for a lot of the racial tension in this country. Spike did a wonderful job weaving the historical context from the confederacy to The Birth of a Nation to Alec Baldwin’s character [in BlacKkKlansman], which was a play on the White Citizens’ Councils from the ’50s and ’60s, to David Duke to Charlottesville to Donald Trump. He used that historical thread very well.
Would you agree that Charlottesville was a turning point for people on the fence about whether or not Donald Trump is a racist?
Donald Trump had the opportunity to be the moral conscience of this country over that horrific act and he failed miserably. He failed to denounce the [white supremacists] like he should have. He winked and nodded at them. As far as I’m concerned, he’s nothing more than the White Supremacist in Chief. He’s their ideological guide. He’s allowed them to come out of the shadows. I think Spike definitely points this out in the movie.
Have you spoken to David Duke in the last 40 years?
He actually called me three weeks ago. I was in New York, and my phone rang. He said, “Ron, this is David Duke.” I said, “Hi, David. How are you doing?” It was the first time we had spoken in 40 years. The only difference was that 40 years ago, I was the one doing the calling. It was a surprise to hear from him. He followed it up with another phone call two days later.
What did he have to say?
He told me that he was concerned how he was going to be portrayed in the movie. He was concerned about his image. He wanted me to know he read my book, and that he liked it and respected me for telling the truth. He also told me he respected Spike Lee’s work. When I told Spike that, he was like, “That’s the kiss of death! I don’t want it!”