BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee’s new film based on the unbelievable-but-true story of Ron Stallworth, a black police officer who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan by pretending to be white on the phone and sending a white colleague as his in-person counterpart for face-to-face meetings with one of America’s vilest homegrown terrorist outfits, begins with a scene from Gone with the Wind.
We see Scarlett O’Hara, dwarfed by a vast wasteland of injured, dying, and dead Confederate soldiers, their flag tattered but waving in the foreground. This scene, which so many of us have seen before — after all, it’s a classic — is followed by the (fictional) filming of a racist PSA, in which Alec Baldwin plays “Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard,” bent on warning his viewers about the threat posed by filthy Jews (who are communists), blacks (who are in league with Jews, and are also probably communists), and “mongrel nations,” all of whom pose a threat to “our holy white Protestant values.”
About halfway through BlacKkKlansman, an extended sequence shows a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, joined by their leader David Duke (played to chilling aww-shucks perfection by Topher Grace) devouring popcorn at a group screening of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, lapping up the foundational myth of the organization to which they’ve pledged their allegiance. Both versions of Ron get to see this up-close: The Colorado Springs Police Department sent Stallworth (John David Washington) to be Duke’s bodyguard, as there had been credible threats on the white supremacist’s life, while the “white Ron,” who is really Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), is feigning delight at his formal initiation.
And the movie ends with a series of news clippings from the past year: Neo-Nazis in polo shirts with tiki torches, chanting “Jews will not replace us!” as they march through Charlottesville. Flashes from the “Unite the Right” rally and the murder of Heather Heyer, whose smiling face floods the screen. Donald Trump’s instantly-infamous remarks about how there were “very fine people” on “both sides” of the riot.
It’s not exactly subtle. But these are unsubtle times.
The real Ron Stallworth, who told ThinkProgress that watching the movie was a “surreal, almost out-of-body experience,” approved of Lee’s choice of a kicker.
“It was very powerful,” he said by phone. “Spike Lee knows what he’s doing. And I’ll leave it at that.”
While there’s plenty of fiction laced throughout Lee’s adaptation of Stallworth’s memoir, the most surreal stuff (to borrow Stallworth’s phrasing) happens to be true.
“It’s October 1978, and I saw an ad in the paper. It said, ‘Ku Klux Klan: for information,’ and then there was a P.O. box,” Stallworth remembered. “So I sat down and wrote a note to the P.O. box, pretending to be a white supremacist wanting to preserve the white race.”
This was the first move in an investigation into the KKK and “what threat they posed to my community,” he said, and it was all well and good except for one major error, included in the film: “I mistakenly signed my real name.”
But he did wisely offer his would-be Klan confidants the contact information that the Colorado Springs Police Department used for transactions in their undercover work. And about a week later, a local Klan organizer gave Stallworth a call.
Stallworth was caught a bit off guard; he was “expecting something in the form of a brochure or a pamphlet. I wasn’t expecting a phone call.” But he quickly wove together the sort of story the Klan organizer would be enticed by. “I told him my sister was dating a nigger, and every time that nigger put his filthy black hands on her pure white body, it made me sick. And I wanted to do something about that…. I wanted to prevent further injustice against the race by race-mixing.”
“And he said, ‘You’re exactly what i’m looking for.’”
Stallworth joined the police department as a cadet when he was only 19 years old, in a program for high school graduates who wanted to become cops. (The movie makes a composite of this time period to speed the story along.) He was hoping to make enough money to put himself through college and become a high school physical education teacher, but “one year into the job, I was having too much fun, and I was making twice as much money” as he would have in his initial dream job. “So I stuck with it for the next 32 years.”
“When I first joined at 19, I was the only black face in the department,” Stallworth said. “There was a little tension around the department. Not a lot. But there was a little tension because they were on the cusp of having a black face among their ranks. I had to present myself in a way that was agreeable and acceptable to them.”
He referenced a scene in the movie in which, while Ron is still working in the records department fetching files for other officers, a white cop asks Ron for records on “toads.”
“‘Toads’ was the pet name that they used for black people,” Stallworth said. “And I started using it too. I wanted to fit in and integrate myself within this police culture… It took me a short time to realize a toad was a black person, and once I realized it, I stopped using it.”
On Stallworth’s first phone call with the Klan, the Klansman asked Stallworth when they could meet. So Stallworth came up with the idea of getting a white undercover officer to go in his stead. “I would be talking on the phone, and when it required a face-to-face meeting, I’d send him in. That’s basically what we did for the next seven and a half months.”
Prior to the investigation, “I didn’t know a lot [about the KKK] other than what I learned in history books in school. And any black person knows what the Klan’s history is,” he said. “There were no surprises, other than these were a bunch of bumbling idiots.”
The KKK’s idiocy is played for dark laughs in Lee’s movie, which relishes how this pack of hateful dumb-dumbs who think they’re a superior race get outfoxed by a black guy and a Jew.
In the film and in real life, Stallworth talked to David Duke on the phone, and even asked Duke how he could be sure he was talking to a real white person and not a black person trying to put one over on him. Duke assures Stallworth that such a thing could never happen; he can tell who is black and who is white based on their voice alone.
But aside from that obvious screw-up, Duke is shown in the movie as slicker and savvier than the scruffy, gun-hoarding, KKK members Stallworth meets initially, one of whom is so drunk that he’s never not slurring his slurs.
“David Duke was the face of what he called the new plan, a plan that was not racially motivated, that was trying tot become politically active and register people with ‘like-minded ideology’ to vote, so they could change the system from within. In other words, he was doing everything that Dr. Martin Luther King, was doing, except he was doing it from a position of hate.”
As Stallworth sees it, “David Duke was the physical embodiment, at that time, of what Donald Trump is now, and vice versa. David Duke was preaching the same things Donald Trump did in his campaign…David Duke tried to accomplish what Donald Trump did successfully.”
Stallworth wasn’t involved in the adaptation process, but he seems to share Lee’s vision, which is to say, “I hope people recognize that the Klan is alive and well, and they’ve never gone anywhere,” he said. “And that you don’t need to fear groups like the Klan. What you need to do is organize. Go out and vote. Change the system from within. And get rid of people like Donald Trump who, with a wink and a nod, allow groups like the Klan and the alt-right to exist.”
“There’s no surprise there. Nobody should be surprised. The Klan never left. People think that the Klan was gone, that they were a non-entity, not a threat, and shame on people for believing that. The KKK has always been around, will always be around. There are periods of time where they are not as relevant as others, but they are always a presence in American life and they always will be.”
“Well, they’ve been around since 1860-something, and they’ve never gone away.”