Ron Stallworth was the first African-American person to join the Colorado Springs Police Force. A remarkable enough feat, but one that pales in comparison to the revelation that he is quite possibly the only black man ever to become a member of white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Yes, you read that right.
Legendary American director Spike Lee uses humour, high-stakes drama and documentary footage to tell the incredible true story of Stallworth's efforts to investigate the KKK in his new film BlacKkKlansman, which won the "runner-up" Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival this year. "I couldn't believe it when Jordan Peele called me up to tell me about Stallworth," says Spike Lee. "It's hard to believe that it's a true story."
Peele, the Oscar-winning writer, director and producer of race drama Get Out, was originally going to direct BlacKkKlansman himself, but following the success of Get Out, he moved on to another project. He felt the story was a ready-made "Spike Lee joint" and wisely left Stallworth's story to Lee, who, with his regular collaborator Kevin Willmott, set about rewriting the script.
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The pair met with the real Stallworth, who retired in 2005, having served as a police detective for 32 years over four states. “I met Ron several times,” says Lee. “The first time he came to Brooklyn, New York, was for the read-through and he was very helpful to us, particularly to John David Washington, who played him.”
Washington is the son of Academy Award-winner and Lee regular Denzel Washington. He proves himself a chip off the old block by delivering a performance that is a mixture of wide-eyed innocence combined with a gung-ho zest.
Sitting in a hotel room in Cannes, Washington speaks of his admiration and respect for Stallworth: “Once I got to talk to Ron, when he passed around the Ku Klux Klan membership card with his name on it, the reality of what he had done started to sink in, and in the 1970s as well. My word, what a brave man.”
The film starts with Stallworth being interviewed for a job at the Colorado Springs Police Department. He is put to work in the records room where he witnesses racism first-hand, and worryingly, from those who are supposed to be the good guys, as his police colleagues refer to black men using the derogatory slur “toads”.
Stallworth catches a break when the police force requires an undercover officer to investigate a local black students' group meeting where the legendary Black Power activist Kwame Ture (also known as Stokely Carmichael) will be talking. In the queue for the meeting, he meets student president and his love interest in the film, Patrice Dumas, played by Spider-Man: Homecoming star Laura Harrier.
Harrier, who modelled her character on Black Power activists Kathleen Cleaver and Angela Davis, was taken by the relevance that this 1970s-set story is still relevant today: “There is this strange misconception that we have solved racism and that is absolutely not the case. Circumstances are different compared to the 1970s, but just because there are less guys in hoods, doesn’t mean racism has gone.”
Reminded at the meetings about the need for a collective black consciousness in America, Stallworth makes the life-changing decision to respond to a recruitment advert for the Klan found in a local newspaper.
He soon gets a call back from a local Klan organiser and so begins a hilarious sequence of events where Stallworth starts chatting to the Klan on the phone pretending to be a white supremacist.
For obvious reasons, Stallworth cannot attend meetings himself and so needs a proxy. The tall, white, and in the film, Jewish colleague, Flip Zimmerman, played by Girls and Star Wars star Adam Driver, goes to Klan meetings in his stead. Driver says the concept was so ridiculous and beyond the realms of imagination that they didn't really have to try to make the film comedic, "It just kind of happened," Driver says. "It wasn't like something conscious that we have to inject humour here. It was from the script. And if you look at reality, there is always something dramatic that happens coupled with something ironic and funny."
Humour is a tool that has often been used by Lee throughout his career, even in films discussing heavy race issues. "If you go back to Do the Right Thing and also Malcolm X, they are two serious films that have humour in it," says Lee. "I'm not the first filmmaker to do it. One of my favourite films, Dr Strangelove, by Stanley Kubrick is very funny, but look at the subject, what is more serious than a film about the extinction of mankind?" Lee uses the central Klan membership conceit to take aim at a number of subjects that have stoked his ire. One of which is the torrid racist past of Hollywood. Lee says, "Hollywood has historically been about white supremacy, the superman."
One of his bugbears is the complete absence of discussions on the lack of social context or even mention of the racism when cinephiles laud D W Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone With the Wind (1939). While many choose to recall how Hattie McDaniel became the first African-American to win an Oscar for her performance in Gone With the Wind, Lee reminds us that: "She was not even allowed to sit with the rest of the cast at the ceremony".
Even more pertinent is the fantastic way that Lee ties the story of the Ku Klux Klan with present-day political events in America and the election of president Trump.
A career best performance from Topher Grace as David Duke, who in the 1970s was the Grand Wizard of the KKK before reinventing himself as a politician, is utilised to show how right-wing supremacist groups around the world have attempted to rebrand and give nationalist and racist political groupings a more human face.
“Our hope is that when people see this film, they see it as more than just being about president Trump and what is happening in America,” says Lee. “This film has more of a global outlook because the rise of the right is not just this one guy in the White House, it’s happening all over the world.”
And that's why BlacKkKlansman may just be the most important and timely movie of the year.
BlacKkKlansman is out in UAE cinemas on August 16