Consider Spike Lee’s new film, “BlacKkKlansman,” one of the must-see cinematic events of 2018. It is arguably the director’s best narrative feature since 2002’s “25th Hour,” and undeniably one of the most incendiary indictments of the Trump Administration to hit the big screen. Those who believed the tensions depicted in Lee’s 1989 masterpiece, “Do the Right Thing,” had evaporated thanks to our “post-racial” society were swiftly disproven by the 2014 riots triggered by police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri. Anyone who thought the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacy had become irrelevant decades ago were shocked into consciousness by the horrifying reality of the 2017 Charlottesville demonstrations that claimed the life of counter-protester Heather Heyer. The fact that President Donald Trump refused to take sides in this conflict led Lee to dub him a “motherf—ker” multiple times during a Cannes press conference as galvanizing as any given scene in this film.
“BlacKkKlansman,” which is dedicated to Heyer, has received great acclaim at festivals around the world, including at Cannes, where it won the Grand Prix. Certain sections of the film are evocative of Raoul Peck’s Oscar-nominated documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro,” in how they provide a disturbing analysis of Hollywood landmarks, affirming that D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” was history written not with lightning but the flame of a burning cross. John David Washington (eldest son of Denzel) takes on the lead role in this staggering true story of Ron Stallworth, the first African-American detective at the Colorado Springs Police Department, who amazed his colleagues by infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan in the early 1970s. Communicating with Klansmen, including Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace), on the phone, Stallworth recruits a white officer (Adam Driver), to pose as him during the undercover investigation. Meanwhile, Ron plays a different role—that of a construction worker—when in the presence of Patrice (Laura Harrier), a young activist who refers to the police as “pigs.”
Washington, who found early success in football before landing a scene-stealing role on the HBO series, “Ballers,” spoke with RogerEbert.com about his earliest memories of Spike, the power of language and how Stallworth’s over-the-phone persona differs from the “white voice” in Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You.”
How did you come to the acting profession on your own terms, following your career in football?
I’ve loved acting since I can remember. I’ll never forget watching my dad perform in a Shakespeare in the Park production of Richard III in New York. I also watched him in “Glory” so many times that I knew every line from every character in the film, so it was clear that the love was there back then. The injury that ended my time in football turned out to be serendipitous. I tore my Achilles while training for a pending tryout with the New York Giants, and when it snapped, so did my career, basically. That’s what led me to gain the confidence to get into the acting world on my own terms. There’s a great friend of mine—who is now my agent—who got me into auditions. I wanted to go study at the same time, so our game plan was to balance that with auditions, because I needed to fail and learn what rejection felt like in the industry. I figured that I could do both at the same time, and then ended up booking my role on “Ballers.” In the show’s off-season, I still get to study at HB Studios, which is pretty cool.
Have you found yourself able to utilize skills from your sports training while acting?
No doubt about it. To me, football is the ultimate team sport. If one man out of the eleven doesn’t do their job, the play can falter. I believe when you have all eleven guys on the same page, success usually breeds success and the same is true of when everybody’s clicking onset. On a Spike Lee set, everybody seems to want to be there and is motivated to work in unison and do the best they can. The environment was set up in such a way that made us feel like we could do anything. It was great.
I was delighted upon discovering that you were the first school kid who stands up and says, “I am Malcolm X!”, at the end of Spike and your father’s great 1992 film, “Malcolm X.”
We did about seven takes of that line, and Spike told me, “I’m gonna ask you to get up. I’m not going to say, ‘Action!’ I’m gonna say, ‘Go.’” He walked me through it, so it was very easy. He kept telling me to call him “Uncle Spike,” so I was like, “It’s cool, Uncle Spike, I got this.” After take seven, I felt like we had it in the can. It was a great experience, as was making “BlacKkKlansman,” though it was obviously different for me, being older and with more responsibilities. It truly was a collaborative effort. Spike wanted my ideas and trusted my instincts. He is a man that loves and values the process of telling a story, not skipping any steps, and that’s what I’m about too.
We were able to take our time in the rehearsal process to craft it together and then—as Spike would often say—“let it go.” He’d tell me, “Ron is not the Bible. Don’t try to act like him. He’s not everything for your performance. I need you to bring what you bring to it as well.” Spike never asked me to try anything or suggested any particular way of performing a scene. He would strip stuff down and we would block it differently, but he wouldn’t instruct me on how to sell a punchline, because we weren’t telling jokes. We aren’t trying to go for a joke, we are just trying to live the reality of these characters.
What insights did Ron give you into the art of performance?
He told me about the importance of my character having different names ready to use, as well as jobs that he would have, such as when he tells Patrice that he’s a “construction worker.” I don’t even know if that was in the script. I just used it because Ron had used it before. That idea of creating a backstory is a lot like getting into character, in that regard, not in terms of the voice, but in just being another person while undercover. I talked to Ron once a week, and he was very giving with all the information. Our conversations would get deep, and we’d talk about the way we were raised, so we were exchanging information that way. In great detail, he’d tell me about what happened during those phone calls, and I took it all in. I was able to use it, but at the same time, on the day of the shoot, I had to kind of let it go and not overthink it and not try to do the scene exactly how I remember him describing it. I had to be in the moment and let the actors I got to play with and the clothes help navigate me through the truth of that part.
To what extent did you and Adam Driver attempt to share the same “voice” for Ron Stallworth?
Spike didn’t really ask us to do that. He wasn’t interested in hitting stuff on the nose and we just trusted the process as well as what actually happened in the story. The Ku Klux Klan weren’t able to put it together for whatever reason. They really couldn’t tell that these were separate people. Adam and I didn’t need to concentrate on trying to have the same voice, and I think if we did that, it would’ve been distracting to the story, so I’m glad we made that choice not to.
It’s interesting to contrast this film with “Sorry to Bother You.” While both films are strikingly different, they each center on a young black man who excels at his job by portraying a white man on the phone.
I saw “Sorry to Bother You,” and I think it’s a wonderful film, but it is totally different. For one, the story in our film really happened. Ron isn’t attempting to assimilate by using his “white voice.” How he sounds on the phone is exactly how he talks. One of my favorite scenes in the film is when he asks his chief, “What does a black man talk like?” I went to a private, historically Black college, and I have family in the South as well as New York. I got a whole bunch of experiences, so what am I supposed to sound like? I feel that Ron Stallworth was just being himself. He’s playing a character, sure, but he wasn’t putting on any kind of accelerated white voice. I don’t see the similarity, but that’s the beautiful thing about film. If comparing these movies can get people talking about them, it’s good for everybody.
Perhaps the one pointed question raised by both films is whether a corrupted system can be changed by those who choose to work within it.
As I did my research, I found myself agreeing with Ron that change can occur when working within the system. No violent acts or terrorist attacks were committed during his investigation of the Ku Klux Klan, and Ron really spearheaded it. I don’t know if it was off of a whim, but he was so in the moment while calling the KKK that he literally forgot to use a fake name, which is what you do as a detective. He used his real name. A huge takeaway from the film is the fact that the men in his department had his back and fully supported him. They weren’t black, but like in football, they worked in unison to achieve a common goal. They are protecting and serving their community together. In that banquet scene with the KKK, the law was on Ron’s side, and probably saved his life. After knowing what it is like to be an African-American police officer in this country, specifically during that time, I believe so much in what Ron was doing.
Ron’s forced “photo opp” with David Duke at the banquet is highly reminiscent of Sammy Davis Jr.’s famous prank on Archie Bunker in “All in the Family,” yet like so many of the jaw-dropping events in this movie, it actually happened. What do you think inspired Ron to take that level of a risk?
He did it to save his partner so that their cover wouldn’t be blown. That day onset, I could feel how dangerous it was for Ron. He could’ve ended up being buried in the backyard, even though he had the badge on his side. You’ve gotta think on your feet, as all detectives do. Ron had to be prepared to cause some kind of distraction, at least to buy some time, and it was quick thinking on his part.
During the film’s powerful press conference at the Cannes Film Festival, Spike defended his inclusion of racial slurs in the script by saying, “I wanted the hate to be verbalized.”
I agree with Spike. I don’t think these curse words were being used for shock value, I think they were specific to the type of language hate engenders. That is how people talk, how hatred is delivered and received. Ron had to go there and say these things to be accepted by the people on the other side of the phone. I thought the words were placed perfectly, like in an August Wilson play. There is cursing for a reason, it’s not just for the sake of cursing. That’s how I felt as I read it and got to know the story more.
At the press conference, Spike himself illustrated how cursing of a very different sort—aimed at Trump—can be justifiable when the situation calls for it.
He seemed very emotional about it, didn’t he? He’s a passionate man. I can’t explain what was going on in his head, and we didn’t talk about it afterwards. I was kind of shocked, sitting next to him, but he felt he had a platform for delivering a message, and those were the words he chose at the time.
What are your thoughts on how the film’s ending was reshaped by the events in Charlottesville?
I had no idea it was going to happen and while watching it, I felt that it just kind of tied it all to where we still are as a country. The whole film has a contemporary flow, but in that ending sequence, the story is no longer a period piece. Watching the film overseas, I felt a little embarrassed for us as Americans. It was interesting watching the film in other countries, seeing and hearing how people were responding and reacting to it. Going back to that idea of language, this film illuminates how people think and talk at their family barbecues. It shows just how divided we are. Audiences at the festivals I’ve attended have been so passionate about the film. During one Q&A, someone asked me, “How do we solve racism?”, and I was like, “Man, I don’t know, but I’m glad that the film got you to ask that.” [laughs] It seemed like people really cared, and I’m not going to say it woke people up, but at least it fired them up in wanting answers to a question like that. I hope the film has that same effect here in the states.
In Cannes, you told one of our writers that '70s music served as a crucial influence on your performance. What were some of the songs on your playlist?
“Super Fly,” all the time. Every morning, I’d wake up to Curtis Mayfield singing “Give Me Your Love.” Ron O’Neal is The Man, and “Super Fly” was my go-to as far as 70s films are concerned. I just loved O’Neal’s performance and how layered he was as a character. He wasn’t just a pimp, he was a pimp with feelings. [laughs] I also loved the clothes, the music and the soundtrack. During production, I listened to R&B and hip-hop, and “Soul Train” put me to sleep every night. That did something to me. It made my job as an actor easier. I didn’t need to get into character. My rhythm was of late '60s and '70s rhythms and vocals—and lyrics, too. The language was different back then, and it just helped me flow right into it when it was time to shoot. I don’t think this kind of story could be told by anyone else. Spike Lee and Jordan Peele were the ones to do this. I didn’t personally see Jordan onset, but it was so great having him as a producer on this project. Obviously the man has good taste, and I am a fan of how he tells stories. He cares so much about the craft. With him and Spike onboard, you felt like you had freedom to tell the truth and not compromise anything.