Spike Lee's new film "BlacKkKlansman" tells the surreal and almost unbelievable true story of Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington), a black police officer who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado during the early 1970s. How did Stallworth accomplish this? He established a phone relationship with (now) nationally known white supremacist leader David Duke. And even more bold, Stallworth partnered with a white police officer named Flip Zimmerman (a Jewish man played by Adam Driver) who took on his identity in order to meet with Klan members in person and to eventually join the terrorist organization.
Past is prologue and while "BlacKkKlansman" takes place some 40 years ago it is a powerful commentary on a United States where Donald Trump, a racist who gives public aid and comfort to the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists, is now president. "BlacKkKlansman" is also an indictment of a country where the values and beliefs of neo Nazis and other white supremacists have become increasingly mainstream and are shared by many millions of white Americans as well as the Republican Party.
I recently spoke with Kevin Willmott, one of the screenwriters of "BlacKkKlansman." Willmott is also a professor of film at the University of Kansas and previously collaborated with Spike Lee on the 2015 film "Chi-Raq."
Willmott shares his thoughts on how "BlacKkKlansman" resonates in Trump's America, how Ron Stallworth embodies W.E.B. Du Bois' concept of "double consciousness," the seductiveness of hate, what it was like to watch "BlacKkKlansman" with a Donald Trump voter, and why he believes that many of Trump's supporters want absolution for their racism — and why it should not be granted so easily.
Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
"BlacKkKlansman" mixes various elements. It is a biopic and docudrama and police film set in the 1970s but its subject matter of white supremacists and the Ku Klux Klan reflects the present with the rise of Donald Trump and his hate movement. The movie also has comedic moments where the events seem absurd and surreal. How did you and Spike Lee balance all of this?
The thing that Spike and I tried to do more than anything else was to not pull any punches on what the Ku Klux Klan is and what they and other hate groups do, talk about, and believe. That is how you reveal the absurdity of it all. We never wrote jokes and we were never trying to find things that were funny. The humor just comes from the insanity of what Ron decided to do and how crazy the world of hate groups really is.
At the recent hate festival in Portland there was a white supremacist dressed up as a cartoon character. Online there were people making fun of this man and what he wore. They did this because they lack context. The Ku Klux Klan donned white sheets as a way of pretending to be the ghosts of white Confederate war dead. At the time of the Klan's founding their ranks and titles such as "Grand Cyclops", "Kleagle" and "Kludd" were also looked upon by outsiders as being ridiculous. But this is all very lethal and deadly business and not at all funny.
I don't think people know this history very well which is why the clips of the film "Birth of a Nation" are so important in "BlacKkKlansman." The public should really know the history of the birth of the Ku Klux Klan because that hate group has infiltrated into the mainstream of politics in this country with Donald Trump in a bunch of both subtle and not so subtle ways. What you are describing about the white supremacist dressing up as a children's cartoon character shows us that the crazier something is, the more powerful and wide its appeal may be. It's just like Donald Trump, where you take a mood and a feeling of grievance that a lot of people possess and then you exploit it. The Ku Klux Klan did that back in the day and that's what Trump is doing now.
What percentage of the story is biography and documentary and how much of it is drama where the "facts" are "enhanced"?
The premise of the film and the big moments in its narrative are all true. For example, the amazing thing about Ron’s story is that the moment he takes the picture with David Duke, gets the KKK membership card in the mail, as well as when Ron accidentally uses his real name during the phone conversation with the Klan, is all real. Our job as writers is to try to make an entertaining film.
At the end of the film the white racist cop is arrested. Did that actually happen or was it a Hollywood conceit?
No, that's not part of Ron's book. That was our effort to make the film really speak to the present. One of the things Spike and I wanted to do is build upon the true story. I actually had an experience in college when I was president of the student body where David Duke sent me a letter. This was during the early 1980s.
At the time Duke was with the National Association for the Advancement of White People. That's when he was trying to remove his hood and sheet and put on a business suit and become a politician. We wanted to make sure we brought that out in "BlacKkKlansman" because that kind of hate is becoming mainstream in America now and has a major political platform.
There is a moment in the movie where the black waiters have to serve the white supremacists at a banquet. There were some folks laughing in the theater during that scene. By comparison, I found it enraging. It was just one more moment when black folks such as Pullman Car porters, black women who were maids or did similar work, had to swallow their pride in order to survive, where their humanity is being insulted. Were you trying to signal to that reality?
Black people have been put in many crazy awkward situations like that where there's a hate group event and you happen to be working in the restaurant that night or you happen to be working at the hotel where they're having the convention and you're having to serve these people. There is a great story about D.W. Griffith, who created "Birth of a Nation," and how he gave his black maid a ticket to the movie. When she saw how horrible black people were treated in the film she said, “how dare you do this to me.” Black folks had to tolerate these people who we worked for and they thought they were doing something right for you and not knowing that you're literally being tortured inside.
Like so many other black people, Ron Stallworth occupies a liminal space in white society. He is a man without a country in a lot of ways. He is trying to do the right thing with the cops but he is an outsider there. His own black folks would shun him if they knew the truth about him working with the police. Dominant white society discriminates against him. Of course he is hated by the Klan. In terms of how you tried to craft the story, how did Ron Stallworth negotiate that?
That is why we have the line with Patrice where she discussed W.E.B. Du Bois and "double consciousness," his idea of "two-ness" and being a black American. Du Bois nailed it. If you get educated, get a good job, enter the mainstream of American society and succeed on any level, you typically are going to run up against a moment where you're feeling like you're betraying the cause of black people because of what you are having to do in one form or another. It's gotten a lot better now than the last 20 or 30 years, but it's still a challenge. Of course, this is especially a challenge for black people in police work. It is one that nobody except maybe Muslims or maybe gay people in certain situations experience. But black people have had to wrestle with that for centuries in America and elsewhere. That is the problem with being black in America.
You and Spike Lee are scholars of film and cinema. The movie is very intertextual because of that background. What are other movies besides obvious one such as "Superfly" and "Shaft" was "BlacKkKlansman" in dialogue with?
That was a conversation that black folks were having in the 1970s. I remember when the term "blaxploitation" came into being and how the National Association for the Advancements of Black People protested those films by saying they were stereotypical and exploited the black community in various ways. We just wanted to embrace all the little connections we could find with that history and tension around the sub-genre.
There is so much intentionality in "BlacKkKlansman." Nicholas Turturro is in the film and he gets the Ku Klux Klan some explosives. But there is so much more going on there with Turtorro's character. He's Italian and that speaks to the seductiveness of white supremacy. The Ku Klux Klan, historically, viewed Catholics and Italians as the enemy along with blacks and Jews.
One of the things that the "BlacKkKlansman" does a really good job of is showing how hate groups are not purists, they are pragmatists. They all try to act like they're purists but they're not. And they're not purists in terms of race and ethnicity because they can't afford to be. This is especially true in the 1970s.
Consider the scenes where the Klan is bringing Adam Driver's character into the group and they are wondering if he is Jewish and the head of the local chapter says to leave Driver's character alone because that is how they lose recruits. That's all a real practical reality. Most of those groups are desperate for members and they're desperate for community. That's one of the reasons why I think Ron could fool David Duke over the phone. These hate groups are desperate to have supporters and for people to acknowledge them as being smart and great.
I saw the movie at an early screening a week or so before if was widely released. At the end of the movie a white man wearing a Donald Trump "MAGA" hat got up and was visibly angry during the Charlottesville montage. Frankly, I was scared he was going to come back and become violent. What was he so angry about? Have you had similar experiences or heard similar stories about how some white viewers, Trump supporters especially, reacted to "BlacKkKlansman"?
I attended a screening for film bookers and distributors here in Kansas City. There was a gentleman sitting next to me and I talked to him a little bit before the film. In the middle of the film, one of the lines that David Duke says is "I just want to make America great." My buddies who were sitting down the aisle from me just busted out laughing. They asked me if that was my line and I told them "damn right." But the guy next to me made a noise like he was upset when Duke said the line. Then the real hard hitting stuff at the end about Charlottesville just leveled him. He turned and said to me, "I voted for Trump, but I'm not like that. I'm not racist and I'm not like that, and I didn't vote for him for that reason, I don't believe that stuff." But what he didn't say was, "I no longer support Donald Trump".
That is the dilemma we've got in the country right now. Trump supporters like to divorce themselves from his racism because they know it's wrong but they still want to support him. In that sense the movie was kind of like an exorcism. That man was wanting me to give him absolution. He was wanting me to have a conversation with him about the film so I could say "It’s OK" or "Yes, we could talk a lot about race." I refused to give him that. I would have talked to him if he said he no longer supports Donald Trump.
President Wilson showed "Birth of a Nation" at the White House. What if Donald Trump asked you and Spike Lee to screen "Black KkKlansman" at the White House? Would you accept the invite and what would you say to him?
Spike and I would have to talk about that. That's a real dilemma there. It is a moral dilemma. Do you go into a situation where you're surrounded by racists and take this piece of art we have and show it to them with the hope that it can impact them, change their minds or such? I would have to say that the answer would probably be "no." For the same reasons as with the booker in Kansas City. It is not our job to make them feel better. Our job as artists is to expose the damage that Trump and his supporters and other racists and bigots are doing in the country right now. If they want to stop the damage and admit the hurt and the pain and the suffering they're causing so many people in the country then we can talk. After that we could show the film.