AN INCREDIBLE TRUE STORY COMES TO LIFE
Get ready for some "Fo' Real Fo' Real Shit."
In the mid-1970s, Ron Stallworth broke barriers as The First African-American
Detective serving on The Colorado Springs Police Department. A rising star with
real potential, Stallworth distinguished himself as an exemplary Detective in
his first major undercover assignment, attending a lecture delivered by Black
Panther Party Leader Kwame Ture. Soon after, he stumbled across the newspaper ad
that would forever change the trajectory of his life. In bold black-and-white
was a recruitment message from the Ku Klux Klan, seeking new members. Through a
series of daring encounters, Stallworth was invited into the inner circle of the
self-described "Organization." He even cultivated a personal relationship with
none other than the leader of The Hate Group, David Duke, who never suspected
Stallworth's real identity or race.
Decades later, a retired Stallworth detailed his incredible experiences in
the 2014 Memoir Black Klansman, relating the jaw-dropping tale of how a Black
Cop came to be a card-carrying member of the KKK. Almost immediately, Hollywood
began calling with offers to bring his book to the screen. But Stallworth,
wisely, was wary, unwilling to allow his life story to fall into the wrong
hands. Then came QC Entertainment who acquired the rights to the book, and
following a successful partnership on "Get Out" that Jordan Peele's Monkeypaw
joined QC's Sean McKittrick and Ray Mansfield to produce the film. All
immediately agreed the singular voice of Spike Lee was the one to bring
Stallworth's story to the screen. When Jason Blum's Blumhouse joined soon after,
the reunited "Get Out" producing team was complete.
Over the course of a remarkable 30-plus year career, Academy Award-nominated
filmmaker Spike Lee has crafted an indelible body of work dating back to his
1986 indie breakthrough She's Gotta Have It. With such films as Do the Right
Thing, Malcom X, Inside Man and the four-part documentary When the Levees Broke:
A Requiem in Four Acts, Lee has proven himself time and again to be one of
America's most original and prolific Writer-Directors. He has built a singular
reputation as a formidable, uncompromising creative force whose Art is rooted in
truth as well as a tireless, outspoken proponent for Social Justice.
Peele contacted Lee personally to gauge his interest in the project. "Jordan
Peele called me up," Lee says. "He wanted to see if I wanted to do it." The
Filmmaker was immediately intrigued: "It reminded me of The Dave Chappelle Skit,
but this was real," Lee says, referring to a famous sketch in which Chappelle
played a Blind Black Man who joins The Klan, not realizing that he isn't white.
"I felt that this movie had so much in common with Spike's work, tonally,"
Peele says. "It's funny. It's suspenseful. It's powerful. And it exists in this
genre space, and at the same time, it's a true story. So, I sent the script to
Spike, along with the book. A couple days later, he already knew the script
better than I did. The guy is a Master. And since that moment, I've just been
kind of in awe with his process and how he works."
Lee turned to University of Kansas Tenured Film Professor and frequent
collaborator Kevin Willmott (Chi-Raq) to discuss a take on Stallworth's story
and on the early script written by David Rabinowitz and Charlie Wachtel. Through
their retelling of Stallworth's dangerous mission to bring down the KKK, they
sought to underline the striking connection between Past and Present,
highlighting themes that could not be more pertinent to today's world.
The story might be set in the 1970's, but for Lee and Willmott,
BlacKkKlansman was not a period piece.
"Kevin and I spoke and we knew what we had to do-we had to make it
Contemporary so people could connect it to the Crazy World we all live in
today," Lee says.
By the time the duo flew to L.A. to meet with producers McKittrick, Jason
Blum, Ray Mansflied, Peele, and Shaun Redick they knew exactly what they wanted
to achieve with The Film, and their vision was the key to unlocking the right
way to share Stallworth's story with the world. "It definitely needed a voice, a
Filmmaker with perspective which is the very definition of Spike Lee," says
McKittrick. "We were always drawn to the power of Ron's story -- the scariest
part to me is how relevant it is to what is going on in this country today.
Spike and Kevin Willmott gave the script voice," says McKittrick.
"This is the story of a Man going up against the Greatest Hate he sees in Our
Country," adds Mansfield. "The nerve that takes-if this story wasn't true, you'd
never believe it."
"Ron Stallworth, what he did changed society just a little bit," says Redick.
"He had the guts to make a difference."
A POWERFUL ENSEMBLE TAKES SHAPE
With a greenlight in place, Lee and Willmott began working on their draft of
the screenplay, which features both real-life figures and purely fictional
characters. In Spike Lee's mind, there was no doubt about who should star as Ron
Stallworth: John David Washington, the young actor and former football player
whose biggest project to that point was the HBO television series "Ballers." Lee
had given Washington his first film project-the actor made his debut at just six
years of age alongside father Denzel Washington in Lee's landmark 1992 biopic
Washington says he was elated to get the call about the role from the
director he'd so long admired. "Spike Lee has a very unique way of recruiting
and pitching stuff," John David Washington says. "It was a phone call, very
brief, 'I got a Book for you. Read it.' I was blown away, obviously, just by the
fact this really happened, this was a true story. We talked about it a little
bit, The Film and what he was thinking about and how he wanted to do it. I mean,
this is a guy I've idolized since I was a kid. He gave People of Color, Men and
Women, a Voice, a Platform, and he chose me. I was beyond excited and just
couldn't wait to get to work."
For Flip Zimmerman, the agent who poses as Ron in face-to-face meetings with
the KKK, Lee cast Emmy-nominated actor Adam Driver ("Girls," Star Wars: The Last
Jedi). Although more experienced than
Stallworth in the field, Zimmerman nevertheless finds himself navigating
circumstances well outside of his depths in his encounters with virulent
racists. Flip's experiences with the members of The Hate Group also prompt him
to examine his own relationship to his Jewish heritage. "Coming face to face
with pure hatred makes you reassess your values," Driver says. "Whether a
personal history is important or not is something that he gets to explore over
the course of the movie. That he's more of a self-reflective person I thought
was a fun thing to investigate."
Topher Grace was cast in the pivotal role of David Duke-someone the actor
describes as "one of the worst men in the history of America." Although he was
overwhelmed by the opportunity to work with Lee, preparing to play Duke in the
film required weeks of studying hateful ideology. "It was the worst month of my
life-all I'm doing is watching David Duke and listening to his rhetoric," Grace
says. "I listened to his news radio show-which is still on-because throughout
the film you hear me doing radio. In a sense, his voice doesn't age, so it's
very similar to what it was like in the '70s. I read his autobiography, My
Awakening, which is kind of a thinly disguised Mein Kampf. And it's a doorstop.
It's a really thick book, and it was so hard to get through."
Grace also watched Duke's early 1980s appearances on episodes of Phil
Donahue's talk show. "I noticed that he kept using the phrases 'America First'
and 'Make America Great Again,'" Grace says. "It really jumped out because I
only heard these phrases for the first time a couple years ago."
As Patrice, a committed Activist and Community Organizer Ron meets during his
undercover work, Lee cast actress Laura Harrier (Spider-Man: Homecoming). "I
think it's super rare to find a strong woman, especially a strong woman of
color, who feels fully rounded and like an actual human being when you read a
script," she says. "This was just everything I could have asked for."
Prior to filming, Harrier not only reached out to the Alumni Association at
Colorado College about the work the Black Student Union had been performing on
campus at the time; but she also read Angela Davis' autobiography and met with
Emory University Law professor and former Black Panther Party leader Kathleen
Cleaver. "Spike had her over to his house and we all went there and just talked
to her and asked her questions about her time in The Panthers and what that
experience was like for her, and her relationship with [her Husband and fellow
Panther leader] Eldridge [Cleaver]."
BlacKkKlansman features Harry Belafonte, himself an icon of the civil rights
movement, in the pivotal role of Jerome Turner. Belafonte says that when Spike
Lee spoke to him about the part: "He just said to me, 'Mr. B.,' he said, 'I want
you in my movie.' He sent me the part, and it wasn't very big, didn't last very
long, but the time that we had was really quite intense. I welcomed the
opportunity to be in a Spike Lee movie. When I looked at the film in its
entirety, I realized that he'd really touched on a very important subject
From the start, the ensemble understood the responsibility of telling
Stallworth's real-life story and communicating the film's timely, topical
themes. "I'm very picky with the people who I cast in my films," Lee says. "The
number one goal every Film is to get, as best you can, the right people for the
have in The Film. Money prevents that sometimes, schedule prevents that
sometimes-those factors play a part in casting. But I've been doing this for 30
years, and I will say that this is cast is stellar. The performances are
stellar. Everybody knew the film we were making and did what they had to do to
do their part whether it was large or small."
In September of 2017, Lee gathered the actors for two weeks of extensive
rehearsals, which kicked off with a table-read of the script. The thorough
preparation ensured that production would move swiftly once cameras began to
roll. "We had to look at it from all aspects to make it come together," Lee
says. "We spent the time. We did what we needed to do with the script so for the
most part we wouldn't have to be messing around on the set. We had to get it
Stallworth traveled from his home in Texas to New York for the read-through,
spending some time with Lee and Willmott but mostly helping to advise young star
Washington, addressing any questions the actor had about Stallworth's past. "He
was very generous with his information, just the emotions of what was going on
during that time, during the investigations, what he looked for, how to be a
detective, and the relationships that he established," Washington says. "What
was so surprising to me was the amount of support that he received from his
department to pursue this case."
Stallworth made himself available to all the actors, giving his full support
to the project. He also made it a point to show the cast his KKK membership
card, which he carries in his wallet to this day. "David Duke personally
prepared that and put it in the mail to me after a phone call with me inquiring,
'Where's my card?'" Stallworth says. "He sent me that card, and I've carried it
since January '78 when I got it."
Says Grace: "David Duke and a bunch of different people deny that this ever
happened. Well, it happened. I mean, they inducted a Black Man into The Ku Klux
Klan, to tell you a little something about these idiots. I just thought it was
amazing and kind of symbolic of what his journey was and how amazing a man Ron
The EXPERIENCE OF MAKING BLACkKkLANSMAN
BlacKkKlansman began filming in Da People's Republic of Brooklyn, New York,
in October 2017, with production stretching into December of that year; the
shoot included a short visit to Colorado Springs for some exterior location
shooting. Washington says working on The Film felt like traveling back through
time-shooting the sequence in which Ron, in his first undercover assignment, is
sent to attend a lecture delivered by Kwame Ture that the authorities fear might
stoke racial unrest was especially powerful. He says he was mesmerized by the
charismatic performance co-star Corey Hawkins delivered as Ture.
"He channeled the Spirit of that Man, Kwame Ture," Washington says of the
Straight Outta Compton Actor. "I remember that day. It was this Club
environment. Spike had been warming up the crowd, had a real DJ going, spinning
records. We were dancing for a good 40 minutes, 45 minutes while they were
setting up. Corey was just pacing back and forth. He was in The Zone. And that
Brother got up there and
delivered. I really felt like I was in Colorado Springs in the '70s, and there's
Kwame Ture, speaking to us, addressing us."
Lee and Willmott combed through classic speeches that had been delivered by
Ture (the Trinidad-born activist born Stokely Carmichael) to write Hawkins'
monologue. Hawkins says the scene was unusually nerve-wracking to shoot. "It was
the first time in a long time that I had been really nervous," he says. "I'm not
that Dude. I come on set, I do my work and I'm prepared, so I'm confident. Not
"But the first time I walked out there and I started saying these words, I'm
delivering this speech, all of a sudden, there was this kinetic energy in the
room," Hawkins continues. "You can hear Spike in the back saying, 'Say it
again!' 'Damn right!' The Crowd were hearing the words for the first time, and
they heard the words about being shot down like Dogs by Racist Cops and it
resonated with them. Once we got through the first pass, I could see Spike was
happy. He was proud that we did Kwame's spirit justice."
After that initial assignment, Ron embarks on his own undercover operation,
answering a newspaper ad placed by the KKK looking for new recruits and
connecting with the leader of the local chapter, Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold).
Unable to meet with him without blowing his cover, Flip Zimmerman agrees to pose
as Ron, and together, the two detectives embark on their covert investigation.
But they initially come at the mission from very different angles.
"Flip starts The Movie with a very work-based MO where there's nothing
personal about it-the ends justify the means to getting the job done," Driver
says. "He kind of blanches at Ron's personal commitment to it. It doesn't really
make sense to him. But then as time goes on, he can't help but be personally
On screen, Ron and Flip share an undeniable rapport rooted in something much
deeper than standard buddy-cop tropes. "We dealt with real issues between them,
not the procedural kind of stuff you see in Police Movies," Willmott says. "Ron
is having to deal with all this racial language that he's having to hear over
the phone from the Klan. When he finds out that Flip is Jewish and has not
really acknowledged his ethnic background, that becomes really a link between
the two of them."
The characters' bond reflected the real-life relationship between Washington
and Driver, Lee says. "That happened really in rehearsal," the Director says.
"That didn't just start showing up on set. That happened in rehearsal. They had
a good vibe and you see it on screen."
"He is mMister focused," Washington says of Driver. "He is so intense. If
you're lying in the scene, if you have any false moments, he'll know. You gotta
be truthful the whole time. He pushed me as an Artist to not skip any steps, to
keep the rhythm, to be present with him and the elements of what's going on.
He's just a Good Dude, Man, and I admire how he works, his work ethic, how
professional he was. It was just an honor and a privilege to be able to tell a
story with him for sure."
As the investigation continues, Stallworth finds himself speaking via phone
to David Duke, who has hit upon a new strategy to expand the Klan's appeal,
sanitizing the group's image hateful rhetoric into something that sounds less
overtly offensive on its face. "In the '70s, there had been a perception of
racists, maybe they had beer bellies, they were good old Southern boys," Grace
says. "David, he's very media friendly and very intelligent. He always wears a
three-piece suit. He changed that perception of racism at the time to what it is
The exchanges between Stallworth and Duke are so shocking they're almost
comical-the screenplay's disarming use of humor struck Grace as ingenious.
"Something that was so interesting about reading the script and then being on
set was that the tone was different than I would've thought," Grace says.
"Usually when you make a film like this, it's very somber because the subject
matter is very somber. But something that's brilliant about Spike and brilliant
about Jordan Peele is that they understand how seductive humor is. It actually
brings more people into a story."
Although BlacKkKlansman is in no way a comedy, Lee and Willmott intuitively
understood that humor would need to be woven into the fabric of the story to
help relieve some of the incredible tension on screen. "The only real note
Jordan Peele gave us was, 'Make it funny,'" Willmott says. "The thing that we
try to do on the film is examine these heavy issues-race and hate groups and the
Klan and the whole legacy of the horrible things they've done in this country.
You've gotta find a way to make it entertaining. The fact that Ron was able to
infiltrate the Klan the way he did-that's where the humor comes from, from
revealing the absurdity of it all."
Adds Lee: "The Motherfucking Ku Klux Klan is absurd. The Motherfucking
Alternate Right is absurd. The Motherfucking Neo-Nazis, they're absurd, too, so
you bring absurdity into the movie."
The levity was needed to help the actors work through harrowing scenes in
which they were often called upon to deliver line after line of the most extreme
hate speech imaginable. "John David Washington would definitely try to keep it
light while we were shooting," says producer Shaun Redick. "For stress relief,
he'd do karate moves. Spike left that in the movie. That's him in between
scenes, when he starts throwing punches and he kind of realigns himself, it's
his method. John David uses martial arts to reset himself, to relax."
"Spike, he really trusted me, you know, and I trusted the process,"
Washington adds. "It was great to discover things with Adam, with Laura, with
Topher. It just came so fluidly. It came so naturally, the things that were
happening. That you can't prepare for, but the confidence was rooted in the
preparation. The kind of confidence that I gained as an actor, he's responsible
for. It's beyond measure."
Grace admits he found it difficult to portray a man as loathsome as Duke-a
KKK initiation scene in which a Crowd gleefully cheers during a screening of
1915's The Birth of a Nation was especially harrowing. But he says Lee was an
invaluable source of support. "There were a couple days on set, I had to take a
moment and just detox-it felt so horrible and oppressive and wrong," the actor
says. "What's so great about Spike Lee, he would come over and just say, 'Hey,
man, don't worry. This is a terrible day.
I'm not enjoying myself, but it's in service of something I'm trying to say.'
He really made me feel as comfortable as you can, saying those words and doing
"Spike Lee has made his career confronting these issues publicly and on a
worldwide scale," adds producer Raymond Mansfield. "I don't think there are many
people out there who have the experience, the persona, the personal character to
command a set like that. It was a remarkable set to be on every day. He's not
walking on egg shells. He's taking all his activism, everything he's learned,
and putting it into this great film."
Asked if the film's subject matter took any sort of emotional toll, Lee
offers an emphatic, "No." The work was all in service of telling a powerful and
necessary story. "The emotional toll is doing The Oscar Nominated Documentary 4
Little Girls where that's something that happened for real," he says. "[Making a
film about] the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, and I have to
interview the Parents of The Little Girls who lost their lives in that Terrorist
Attack, now that took a toll."
BlacKkKlansman boasts scenes of dynamic verve and swagger, triumph and
heartbreak, but one of the film's most profound moments involves Harry Belafonte
as Jerome Turner recounting the True Story to the members of Patrice's student
union his first-person recollections of the lynching of Jesse Washington he
witnessed as a young man. Bracing to hear and beautifully conveyed by Belafonte,
the scenes offer a palpable reminder of the unspeakable horrors perpetrated by
KKK. "It was a way to make the Klan real," Willmott says.
Belafonte's day on set was the last day of filming, and Lee asked his Crew to
dress in tuxedos to honor the living legend. "That was just the most epic way to
end it," says Harrier. "I mean, he's this Icon of the Civil Rights Movement. I
just couldn't believe it was him. I don't think anyone was really acting in the
room. We were all so genuinely moved. I feel so honored to have met him and
worked with him."
IT'S NOT ABOUT THE PAST-THIS IS A FILM FOR RIGHT NOW
In 1989, Spike Lee took the Cannes Film Festival by storm with Do the Right
Thing. This May, the director did it again when BlacKkKlansman made its World
Premiere as one of only two American titles In Competition and went on to claim
the prestigious Grand Jury Prize. The film was hailed as an electrifying
true-life tale that celebrates the accomplishments of one truly remarkable man
and a powerful indictment of the resurgent white supremacist ideals flourishing
in America under the current administration. The relevance of Ron Stallworth's
story was unmistakable.
"The subject matter is timeless," Washington says. "We're still fighting the
same stuff today. I guess that's why it was such a relief and a surprise and a
joy to know that Men and Women of all Colors in that Department were working
with Ron to accomplish his goal. If they were doing that in Colorado Springs in
the mid-'70s, then we can do it now, today. This is Us, this is Human Behavior
right here we're watching. This isn't Fiction."
Adds Peele: "I feel like we're living at a time where pieces of this Country
have lost touch with who The Good Guys and The Bad Guys are. Nazism, White
Supremacy, the Klan, are The Bad Guys. They're Hate Groups. And we seem to be at
a point where The President of The United States is calling out good people on
both sides of what should be a clear polarity. This Movie, it's not only a crowd
pleaser, but it's something that we can all go and experience that helps reset
our moral compass when it comes to Racism and White Supremacy in this Country."
To further underscore the Film's topicality, BlacKkKlansman will open in U.S.
theaters Aug. 10, a date chosen to coincide with The One-Year Anniversary of The
White Nationalist Rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia that claimed the life of
Counter-Protester Heather Heyer. Audiences surely will be entertained by
Stallworth's inspirational life-story-but the film also just might encourage
some viewers to undertake the good fight.
"Like Malcolm X once said, 'We must make the struggle using anything at our
disposal to survive,'" says Harry Belafonte. "Only through Art and only through
The Power of Cinema and The Power of Literature can people be informed because
most of White America doesn't spend time lingering on the plight of Black
America. They're too busy trying to survive and enjoy the privileges that they
have worked for. But I don't think there can be any harmony to our existence in
what we are as a Nation until we pay full attention to this injustice that's
going on with Millions of its Citizens."
Offers Lee: "This Film is an examination of The World we live in. This Film
is an examination where there's a Cultural Battle of Love versus Hate like The
Knuckle Rings that Radio Raheem wore in Do the Right Thing, which came from the
Tattoos Robert Mitchum had on his fingers in Night of the Hunter. Love versus
Hate. You cross your fingers and hope and pray that people connect with it when
it opens nationwide Aug. 10."
Next Production Note Section
Home | Theaters | Video | TV
Your Comments and Suggestions are Always Welcome.
© 2019 34®, All Rights Reserved.