BlacKkKlansman is already being praised as one of Spike Lee’s best films and John David Washington, the film’s star, couldn’t agree more. He steps into the role of the real-life Ron Stallworth, the first black detective at the Colorado Springs Police Department that infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan. And although he was fascinated by the stranger-than-fiction story, it was Lee’s filmmaking influence and Jordan Peele’s involvement as a producer that was a big draw to the project.
“It’s pretty much a no brainer,” said Washington about boarding the project. “I mean, I think Spike Lee’s is the master of tone, and with this story, it was in the best hands. In any other hands, it wouldn’t have been right. It could’ve worked maybe, but it wouldn’t have been right for me — and I wouldn’t trust anybody with this story besides those two people.”
Even though BlacKkKlansman marks Washington’s first major lead role, he may be known for his work on HBO’s Ballers and can be seen in David Lowery’s upcoming The Old Man & The Gun with Robert Redford and the Reinaldo Marcus Green-directed Monsters and Men. But working on those films and BlacKkKlansman has lit a fire underneath him in what kind of acting career he wants to pursue.
“I wanna work with filmmakers that love, are enthusiastic about their process, about the process, about their process, and the environment of inclusion and collaboration,” Washington told Deadline. “I want the people to be able to trust me, and I wanna be able to trust them. I got a lot to learn in this business, got so much to learn and I need to get better and better. And I need help, and that help comes in forms of directors that really know and love what they’re doing and are able to trust their performer.”
Washington sat down with Deadline to talk more about playing the real-life Ron Stallworth, paying homage to blaxploitation films, and how it’s okay to laugh during BlacKkKlansman.
DEADLINE: How familiar were you with the story of Ron Stallworth?
JOHN DAVID WASHINGTON: I was unfamiliar. I got the little elevator pitch from Spike, initially, and I was thinking “Yeah, right. So, this is sort of a play off of a Dave Chappelle skit?” And hearing him talk about it, he thought the same thing when Jordan brought it to him. Then he sent the book my way and I read it, and I was blown away. I couldn’t believe this man lived this life and had this experience. So, I was on board. I mean, this [story] had to be told.
DEADLINE: Were you intimidated by playing a real-life person?
WASHINGTON: Months before we had the table reading, I started doing all the research I could. I had the book and he had a couple of things on YouTube I was able to find — some interviews and things like that. So, he has this like Avengers feel to him — like the superhero feel. When I met him I was a bit intimidated. I was kind of — I don’t want to say nervous — but I was a bit intimidated like “this guy’s real!” And it was something about him giving me his Ku Klux Klan membership card — he keeps it on his person — that made it even more real about how we’re going to be able to tell this man’s story. Seeing that card just made it that much more special, but not intimidated. And once we got to talking, he really trusted me with his cinematic life basically. It was encouraging. I was like ready to go.
DEADLINE: So this just wasn’t a regular role for you.
WASHINGTON: Nothing regular. No, this was something different. This is something that doesn’t come across your desk every day as an actor. So, I understood the importance of it and how unique of a story this is — and the hilarity is in the reality of what happened. It’s so ridiculous, but it’s true, so we were able to explore it that much, because we’re standing on the foundation, the structure, of American history.
DEADLINE: With movies like Get Out, Sorry to Bother You, and Blindspotting, BlacKkKlansman comes at this interesting time for narratives centered on different black experiences. Besides being a true story how do you think Ron Stallworth story stands out?
WASHINGTON: Well, we’ve got to be careful about comparisons. It’s a celebration of all these filmmakers telling their truths and real-life experiences that are unknown to the masses. There are certain cultures, we’ll say, that are being able to be told, and Hollywood is giving them the money to do it, or at least the independent agents are, and it’s starting to become trendy and vogue, I guess. And that’s great, so let’s celebrate that by not comparing, but celebrating and embracing. All I think what we have it is a true story. So, we have a different lane, if you will, and it’s really all these directors, films, artists you mentioned, we’re standing on the shoulders of Spike Lee. He’s been doing this for decades, and he was doing it at a time when the business was not recognizing us. The business was it was harder to crack and to tell our specific stories. I mean, Spike Lee was specific to people of men and women of color, you know what I mean?
So seeing him where he is now in his career, and how this film to me is a Spike Lee joint, it’s not suggestive in any way. It’s not pointing out the bad guy. He’s not screaming out messages to you, but the package and delivery of these messages is one of an entertaining capacity.
Up front, I was talking to a friend of mine who saw it last night, she was like “You know, John David, I had a good time at the theater.” And what does that mean? Like you just laughed the whole time? No, she laughed, she was emotional, she got angry, she cried, and then she wanted to talk about it. That’s why I love film. I want to experience all that stuff. So that’s a huge takeaway for me.
DEADLINE: There have been some people saying that with the aforementioned movies and remakes of Superfly and the upcoming redux of Shaft, it’s paralleling the blaxploitation era of film. BlacKkKlansman kind of subverts the story. We’re usually seeing a black guy getting oppressed and exploited, but here we see a black guy infiltrating not only the Ku Klux Klan, but also this police department. We’re always used to seeing the police department being a bad guy when it comes to films combating race, but this is a very interesting take.
WASHINGTON: I mean, I’ll echo that. A huge takeaway for me is how they worked together to infiltrate it, and in the book too there was a woman involved as well that did not look like him that supported his mission and the sting operation. And that’s a huge victory to me. It shows us an example of people coming together, setting aside their differences to overcome this greater giant, this greater beast, and that is hate — this organized institution of hate that is generational because they’re so organized. I mean, that’s a huge takeaway. It wasn’t just one black man with one mission.
I think it was kind of paying a sort of homage to [blaxploitation], but it’s Spike Lee, man — he’s his own beast. He’s not saying a “black message.”
DEADLINE: If this movie were released in 2008 or around that time…
WASHINGTON: When Obama got in?
DEADLINE Yeah — how do you think that would have been like?
WASHINGTON: It’s hard for me to answer that question cause I don’t know how people are receiving it yet. I’m hearing positive things. This story should have been told. [Stallworth] tried to tell it. Oprah and I think Montel in ’06 were gonna get him on and tell this story then they passed. I mean, this is Oprah. I mean I guess it wasn’t time then. It wasn’t her time to do it. But this story should have been told. We’re seeing an evolution of resistance, too. In the forms of hashtags and taking a knee. People seem to be ready to peacefully discuss differences. That’s what I hope this film can inspire — to start a dialogue and not be afraid. I think Ron talks about we can’t be afraid of racism. We have to be able to talk about it openly. But find the correct dialogue to negotiate such things amicably.
I think you hear a lot of these words, these very harsh words, derogatory terms, and slang — but it’s purposeful. It’s not for shock value. It’s not for humorous intent. It’s the true vernacular of hatred and that was how he had to infiltrate. It’s not a white voice, it’s a hateful voice. Ron would tell you the way he’s talking, if he was sitting here he would tell you the way I talk to you now is how I was talking on the phone so he didn’t pull the switch or anything. It’s more of a “hate-switching”, if you will. He got into character.
DEADLINE: Being on a set for a film about racism would seem kind of tense. Did the cast tend to stay away from each other to keep things method? Was there any levity?
WASHINGTON: We were a true family. We needed each other. We were playing silly games, improv games — cause we had to. I mean you can go method and all that stuff too, but cause the trust was there, you can do what you gotta do.
Ashlie Atkinson who plays the wife, we were doing Taming of the Shrew monologues and scenes before they even yell action. We were setting up. We were just so connected in that way on some actor deep shit.
DEADLINE: Usually, any time I see something with a clip about the Klan there’s this gut feeling of me getting physically ill. But with this movie, it was interesting how it wasn’t necessarily a story about hate.
WASHINGTON: That’s what I love. We’re not pointing the bad guys. We’re not pointing to good guys. We’re pointing to Americans. We’re talking a history lesson — an entertaining one. I mean, it’s a period piece, but it has this very contemporary feel to it.
I think that feeling you’re talking when you see the Ku Klux Klan, it’s a history. I mean, my God, they’ve had resurgences throughout the decades. There was the time Birth of a Nation was played in the White House and there’s David Duke — the clean-cut white boy — that’s the next-door neighbor who says “I don’t hate you. We just love ourselves.”
DEADLINE: Spike Lee has always managed to sculpt interesting stories about race and identity with his own brand of drama — and humor. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it takes itself seriously enough.
WASHINGTON: Absolutely. This doesn’t feel like a Black America film. It feels like an American history film. To me, it just feels like a story about this country and that’s how they seem to receive it when it played at Cannes.
DEADLINE: The movie posters and the marketing imagery with you in the hood and a pick in front of an upside down American flag — it’s all on brand for Spike Lee. It’s provocative and you kind of see it as a comedy.
WASHINGTON: I will say though, for people out there, it’s not a comedy — but you are gonna laugh a lot and you might not even know why sometimes. Before the premiere Spike said:”It’s okay to laugh.” I think that’s good. I’m glad he said that, right before.
DEADLINE: How did working with Spike Lee and stepping into this role influence the future of your career and how you choose roles?
WASHINGTON: What a great question….I’ve looked up to [Spike Lee] my whole life, man. He trusted me with the material. He was basically telling me, “You’re the only one for this part. You got this.” He also told me, which was really key, all the information and all the research I was doing, it was just important to let it go on the day. He said, “Ron Stallworth is not the bible. Trust your instincts.” He said, “There’s stuff in here that I need you to bring to this character to service the film. You’re servicing the character, you’re doing your job, I get it. But there’s a whole scope here, I need that to be in this”
I got so much more confidence because of him. I learned the different avenues to the truth. I saw the different ways of working. I see that change is a process, it’s not an event. It’s so encouraging and it’s gonna push me forward. I actually gotta kinda train myself to know that it’s not gonna be like this on all sets.
Everybody’s different. But for that moment, and it was so beneficial to the film that he just let me go. He used stuff in the film that I can’t believe he used. I mean, as an actor a lot of times when you get some freedom and you just go for it they never use it or they just want you to do what they want to, which is okay. You think, “they’re probably not gonna use this” and Spike did.