The release of Spike Lee’s BlacKKKlansman later this week coincides with the incidents in Charlottesville, Virginia on Aug. 12 of last year when a person linked to a white supremacist group drove a car through a group of peaceful protesters killing Heather Heyer and injuring over a dozen people.
The protestors were actually counter-protesting white supremacist groups who were marching with flags and symbols of suppression the previous night to comment on the removal of Confederate-era statues.
In Ron Stallworth’s memoir Black Klansman, he writes about similar marches and counter marches that occurred in the 1970s. Stallworth’s memoir recounts his experiences being the first black police officer in the Colorado Springs police department, where he was employed throughout the 1970s.
While tradition called for a cadet to have multiple years of service before joining the force’s elite undercover squad, Stallworth was essentially drafted into that unit in order for the police department to have an insider at a speech by Black Panther member Stokely Carmichael, also known as Kwame Ture, who was addressing a local student union. Stallworth was wired for sound and attended the event while his fellow officers were nearby in a car listening and recording the whole affair.
After having been on the police force for years, Stallworth had seen an ad in a local Colorado Springs newspaper recruiting for the Klan, sent in his info and when contacted by phone used one of the squad’s white officers to pose as him. Only now it was Stallworth in the car monitoring the officer playing him.
“You never knew when the wire was going to fail,” says Stallworth. “We always tested the wire, but then you go out into the field and weather conditions like intense cold could interfere with the signal.”
While Lee’s film uses Stallworth’s story as a basis for the plot, he also embellishes the story with a romance and a bombing sub-plot to great dramatic effect.
“He basically tells the story while weaving another story in with it,” says Stallworth to Free Press Houston in a candid phone interview.
Producers approached Stallworth as early as 2006 to tell his story. “I didn’t write the book until March of 2013 — it took me nine months to write it,” he says.
“When the book was published in May of 2014, I started getting calls from Hollywood. We went through three other iterations of people wanting to make the movie that didn’t follow through before it landed in the hands of Shaun Redick at QC Entertainment.”
The project was optioned by producer/director Jordan Peele, who initially was going to direct but felt that Spike Lee had a better skill set for this type of story. “My involvement in the film was working with two screenwriters, Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz,” says Stallworth. “I gave them the okay for the screenplay with the condition that they couldn’t pitch it to anybody unless I agreed to it. We went through four versions, and I always found something to object to, but the fifth one we all liked. That’s what they turned over to Spike.”
Lee got involved with his writing partner (Kevin Willmott, who also wrote Lee’s Chi-Raq) and the next thing Stallworth knew he was at the cast read through, which occurred a year ago this coming October.
Stallworth exchanged contact info with cast members John David Washington and Adam Driver, who respectively play Stallworth and his undercover counterpart Flip Zimmerman.
While BlacKKKlansman uses aerial footage of the splendors of Colorado Springs, which includes the national natural landmark Garden of the Gods, most of the film was shot in Ossining, New York.
Under Lee’s direction, the film grabs you by the lapels of your movie consciousness and propels you through a story filled with moments both serious and comic. Yet it’s only at the end of the story where you feel comfortable laughing because the main part of the story is filled with such vitriol and hatred as expressed by the Klan members in the natural course of their dialogue.
The spine of Stallworth’s memoir resonates in BlacKKKlansman, but reading the book opens up worlds you never knew existed.
For instance, in the book there is first one Colorado Springs undercover operative that has infiltrated the KKK, then two undercover agents and then even a third plainclothesman from nearby Denver penetrating the secretive organization.
The main characters of Lee’s film are Washington and Driver, the latter being the only operative working inside the Klan. And the Klan is the main focus of Lee’s film, whereas Stallworth’s version of events takes in the entire scope of the investigation, including groups like Posse Comitatus.
“The Posse Comitatus tried to link up with the Klan members,” says Stallworth. “And the Klan were interested because they offered a course in how not to pay income taxes.”
The Klan wanted to stage a one hundred man protest march to celebrate a visit from then Grand Wizard of the KKK David Duke, but had fewer than three dozen members and thus were looking for recruits.
“The Posse Comitatus was a forerunner of the modern militia groups that occurred in the 1990s. The only authority they recognized was the county sheriff,” says Stallworth. “They claimed that no other form of law enforcement was legal.
“I had stopped a member and he had showed me his ID at a traffic stop. He told me I had no authority based on the constitution. I literally ended up pulling him out of the window of his car, cuffed him and carted him off to jail for failure to obey. That was typical. They would stand up to you. They liked to carry guns. We always approached members of the Posse with caution,” says Stallworth.
Other groups included opposition organizations such as college organizations like La Mecha and the Black Student Union.
“People For the Betterment of People was composed of housewives, a concerned woman started the group and gathered some like minded people to join in with her. They talked a good game but they had no serious organization where they could actually put a dent in Klan activities,” he says. “The various groups were too busy trying to be their own entities rather than uniting.”
Another fringe group, the left leaning Progressive Labor Party, an anti-revisionist communist group, was also on the police radar.
“My investigation was two undercover investigations in one. The emphasis has always been on the KKK. The public has a fascination with that group,” says Stallworth. “But I was also undercover simultaneously with the Progressive Labor movement. The PLP was a serious organization protesting the Klan, and had solid organization. They were avowed Communists and believed in the teaching of Chairman Mao. They were a threat; they talked about openly confronting cops.”
As bad as the racism that’s revealed in both the book and the movie sounds, it at times pales in comparison to what is happening in society today.
“I’ll tell you what’s happened to this country,” says Stallworth. “You have this imbecile sitting in the White House. He’s given a wink and a nod to these groups, not just the Klan but also the entire White Supremacy movement. It’s allowed these people to come out from the underground and from the shadows and spew their venom without any consequence. Trump has failed to be a moral conscious to this country.”
Duke is portrayed in the film with a steely two-faced performance by Topher Grace. Stallworth made phone contact with Duke and they talked often throughout the investigation.
One of the movie’s most surprising events comes directly from the book. Duke was scheduled to give a speech in Colorado Springs and his announced visit was followed by death threats. Stallworth’s superior ordered him to be Duke’s bodyguard while he was in town. “[The undercover assets] Chuck and Jimmy didn’t know I was going to be there. When I showed up I gave them signals that everything was okay,” says Stallworth.
At one point Stallworth asked Duke if they could take a picture together. Duke agreed, and Stallworth handed a Polaroid camera to Chuck. Standing to the right of Duke, Stallworth had his hands by his side. When Chuck clicked the camera Stallworth quickly put his arm around Duke’s shoulder.
The Polaroid was a camera that would instantly eject the photo, which would develop in seconds.
“It was a sprint race. The Polaroid was sliding out; it was like a foot race. I had been on the track team in high school. Duke tried to grab it from me and I said, ‘If you touch me I will arrest you for assault on a police officer. Don’t do it,’” recalls Stallworth.
“He glared at me and I glared back at him. I was literally his worst fear — a nigger with a badge and a gun,” remembers Stallworth. “David Duke proceeds to deliver one of his heartfelt white supremacy speeches. And it was hilarious because I had just defeated him so to speak.”
BlacKKKlansman opens in area theaters this weekend. Additionally Ron Stallworth will appear at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema LaCenterra on Thursday, Aug. 23 at 7:15 p.m. for a screening of the film followed by a Q&A.