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August 10, 2018

What BlacKkKlansman’s John David Washington learned from Spike Lee, Jordan Peele and dad Denzel

And you'll never guess his favorite football team

In Spike Lee’s latest incendiary joint, “BlacKkKlansman,” the Brooklyn-based filmmaker tells the weirdly true tale of Ron Stallworth – an African-American police officer from Colorado during the 1970s. 

That Stallworth successfully infiltrated the area’s Ku Klux Klan chapter through a series of frank, racially-charged phone calls where he pretended to hate blacks and Jews is one thing. That the smart, smooth talking Stallworth become the head of said chapter, and did so at the behest of its Grand Wizard David Duke – and with the aid of a white, Jewish officer who became the physical manifestation of Stallworth’s phone personae – is quite another. That all of this took place at the same time that a Colorado university’s black activist organization was rising made the entire situation of educational marches, stakeouts, cross burnings and such into a pot boiler waiting to explode. 

Lee captures the hard, ferocious roots of violent racism with an unblinking directorial eye, swirling camera angles and an incisive script (co-written by Lee with Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott and a based-upon book credit for Stallworth) that even manages to slip the more recent activity of the Charlottesville riots into its documentary footage-filled finale. All that, and there is humor: The comic dynamics of cops acting as comrades in pursuit of real evil, the evil do-ers ridiculous rituals and hate speech. 

That camaraderie is best personified in two relationships – the active one that Stallworth (John David Washington) has with fellow police officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), and the phone life he shares with David Duke (Topher Grace). Washington pulls both relationships off with grace, guts and a deliciously wicked sense of timing and humor, all things that came through during our interview, one that the actor started with “Yeah, yeah, yeah, hello.”

Q: You’ve been part of HBO’s “Ballers,” from the start, and played football with Morehouse College, and the St. Louis Rams. What do you miss about balling for real?

A: The camaraderie. The brotherhood. There’s something about going onto the field for the first time with your teammates – that strength. That’s hard to compare to anything else, that feeling of being with guys with whom you’re wearing the same uniform, sweated with, bled with. Having the big game together. I do miss all that.

Q: Corny Philadelphia question: Your father filmed “Philadelphia” here, and he filmed “Fallen” here. Does your pop bring his family along when he makes movies and did he tote you around through Philly?

A: Great question. Great question. Not only did Denzel Washington bring his family there, he brought his son to an NFL Eagles game where [I] got to meet my hero, a guy I totally wanted to be like – Randall Cunningham, who gave me his glove. There has got to be footage of that online. He’s the reason I’m an Eagles fan. We won the Super Bowl, man. I’m bragging for you. We’ve been waiting a long time. E.A.G.L.E.S. Eagles! 

Q: Spike Lee has been a large part of your life, personally and professionally. Your first film role is you as a kid in a classroom in 1992’s “Malcolm X.”

A: I was eight years old.

Q: How does he, as a man, a film professional and an artist affect you, or speak to you, as a man, a film professional and as an artist?

A: He speaks to me as he does any of his collaborators – know your stuff, know what you’re doing, go in there and get ‘em. He’s like a hard coach. He can be encouraging and he can also break you down. If you haven’t done your homework, haven’t done your job, or you’re distracting the team, he’s not having it. Sorry for all the sports references. That said, I loved his approach. Spike treated me like my old man would. And he didn’t do this as any favor, or to try to get my father to do another film. He did this because he believed in me, and wanted me for this. That gives you extreme confidence once it’s time to shoot. Because, here is this legend, this hero of mine…It really is the best thing that you could imagine for an an actor-director relationship.

Q: What do you recall about the first “BlacKkKlansman” conversation? What was his pitch?

A: Spike texts me, and says to call him back. I call, and he asks where I’m at. I told him Cincinnati doing a film, and he asks what hotel, says he’s sending me a book and that I should read it right away. I ask him what it’s about and he says, ‘It’s crazy. This black cop who infiltrates the Klan.’ I hung up and thought that this was some Dave Chappelle s**t. I get it. I read it. I go nuts. I call him back and ask if this is serious. ‘Yes. See you in Brooklyn this summer.’ That’s it. We didn’t talk about feelings, nothing. 

Q: How did you research and get into the role before meeting Stallworth?

A: Looking back on it now, maybe I was panicking. I don’t know. I was curious, searching. This is Spike Lee. This is organized chaos. He knows exactly what he is doing when he asked me not to meet the guy. I know that ultimately it paid off for me after, because…I think it was what Spike was saying to about trusting my instincts and finding my own way. I mean, Spike knows my work ethics. He knew I would go full on and be thorough, but he also didn’t want me to imitate the guy. And me neither. I just wanted to get the stuff that went below the surface – motivated Stallworth.

Q: Once you spoke with Stallworth, was there one key element that he wanted you to take away about understanding him, and understanding the heat of that moment? That era? Being a black cop under siege from all sides?

A: We shared some very personal things that I can’t discuss. Once I got the chance though, I ate it up. It went deeper than just acting like the guy. And I’m pleased that Spike trusted my instincts. Ask Spike. He’ll tell you. I loved that it happened that way. He’s a teacher in that way, a wealth of experience and knowledge to be gleaned from that guy. With Ron, there was a common thread between him and my uncles and other members of my family from that time who had the African-American male experience the 1970s. They were able to talk about how were people accepted them, what they had to do. 

There was quite the motivation to get equality and rights for the culture. Ron was on the side of the law, so he may have felt the same way a Black Panther felt, but he wanted to do things the legal way. Cops were doing it from the inside, and we never get a chance to hear those stories – how black police officers had to handle themselves. Now, a lot of good cops take the blame for a whole lot of bad cops, but there are plenty of cops who are there strictly to protect and serve.

Q: Two things make this movie poignant and jarring. The first is that it doesn’t feel like a period piece. Of course, the language and action of hatred and racism still exists, so there’s that currency. And despite being rooted in the 1970s, its characters’ conversation is contemporary. There’s even a little ‘Make America great again’ dig. Is that you and Adam, or is that Spike and the screenwriters?

A: All of us I think – the entire board of trustees including [producer] Jordan Peele [were involved]...I agree with you. It sounds now, the rhythm is of the moment which is weird, because I was in a time warp while filming, listening to old R&B music. It just goes to show you what type of words hate attracts. The kind of language hate is…it's generational. Some of these trigger words are the same today as they were then. It made me embarrassed for my country when I saw this for the first time at Cannes.

Q: The other thing that is odd is that there is a lot of levity in this film, so much so, to the point where you’re uncomfortable while laughing.

A: I can’t speak for the other actors and characters, but I put a premium on sticking to the truth. Adam and I wondered how we would unpack this, and put it all together tonally, but we weren’t going for jokes – not hitting punchlines – yet displaying what was this workplace environment...There were clearly bad guys and good guys, but everybody had their own language behind closed doors. We didn’t compromise anything for the sake of the "wow" factor. We played to the truth. And the truth, on occasion, was as funny as it was sad or angering.

BlacKkKlansman hits theaters today, Aug. 10.