In the first footage from Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman that debuted at CinemaCon last week, John David Washington (as Ron Stallworth) spews the most racist, misogynist, homophobic tirade you can imagine during a phone call with David Duke (played by Topher Grace) in an effort to win over the then-Grand Wizard of the white supremacist group Ku Klux Klan.
And it works.
Based on the surreal true story of Stallworth, the first African-American police officer in Colorado Springs, Colo., BlacKkKlansman follows Stallworth’s journey to not only successfully infiltrate the KKK organization but to head its local chapter.
In this first look photo from the movie, Washington’s Stallworth briefs fellow police officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who poses as Stallworth’s “white self” to meet with Duke and KKK members in person. Zimmerman holds Stallworth’s KKK membership card in his hand.
“[Ron] still has his Klu Klux Klan membership card to this day,” Washington told EW, as he spoke about the real Stallworth coming to the set of the film and regaling the cast and crew with stories from his past.
“He passed the card around for us to see and feel and it kind of just brought truth to everything he said, a validation,” Washington added.
See what else Washington had to say about how timely the film is, Topher Grace playing David Duke, and whether he scored any Star Wars secrets from Driver.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What is Ron Stallworth like in real life?
JOHN DAVID WASHINGTON: He’s an amazing person. He’s always about the job. It was never emotional for him. He never thought of it in that way of “taking down the man.” He was [inspired] by the idea of no violent crimes or terrorist acts in Colorado Springs during his investigation, and he successfully accomplished that.
What was the most outrageous part of this story?
To me, the most outrageous part is that it’s factual, that this happened. That’s why it’s so…everything in it, you’ll see, how extreme and eye-opening and surprising the events that happened are, but…what tops it off [for] me, what makes it all come together, is that this really happened. This is American history. It’s unbelievable that this story is true, and whether you connect with the film or not, to come into this information is still mind-blowing.
How does the film show that racial fractures in America have always been there — maybe it was suppressed for a while, but it was always boiling under the surface?
The film is a period piece but the subject matter is very familiar. It has a contemporary rhythm to it, given the dialogue and the subject matter. It’s almost like now we can see how far we’ve come, and this film can maybe help us gauge how the progress is coming along in this country. Are we doing any better, are we opening up conversations, can we have people with different opinions still communicate? That’s what I’m hoping for, too, after seeing this film. We’ve got to start somewhere.
You’ve been in a couple of other films coming out this year — Monsters and Men and Monster — which explore the black experience in America. Why are these stories so important right now and important to tell on film?
I think culturally stories are important, whether it be cinema, whether it be by word of mouth, which I don’t even know if we do anymore as it all seems to be social media. I think we’ve got to educate the youth and the young generations to remind ourselves — I’m 33 years old — just to remind us of what’s happened and what’s going on and [how] it’s connected. We can relate to some of these people in these stories that we see and listen to, there’s something that we can identify with, that connective tissue of whatever you find in these characters you identify with could be the key in unlocking the divide.
What was Topher Grace like as David Duke?
Oh my goodness, what a performance. Topher and Corey [Hawkins as civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael], their characters kind of anchor or bookmark the history of this country in this film. We’re talking about two opposite thinkers, but they give more truth to…or more of a realization of how dangerous this was and how true this story really is.
Topher generally plays very affable characters.
You know, it was bold on his part! I think that’s the wow factor as a fan because I love his work too, and knowing the characters I’m used to seeing him play, and you see him in this and it’s scary. You don’t even think it’s him at first! I told him that all the time. I’d say, “You’re a bold man and you’re delivering.”
How did you and Adam create the partnership for him to play the ‘white Ron’?
He is the man. He’s crazy talented, obviously, but his work ethic is what I admire the most. You can’t lie when you’re on set, you can’t lie when you’re in a scene with him because he’ll draw it out. You’ll feel, “Okay, that wasn’t honest.” He makes you be present and honest the entire time you’re with him and he made it very easy, very natural to play off of him and I feel like it shows in the film. His character, he might even [be taking] more of a risk than Ron in so many ways.
Did you manage to coerce any Star Wars secrets out of Kylo Ren?
[laughs] He’s very well-trained, both in the Force and how to not answer any questions about the Force. I was trying because I’m a Star Wars geek, but he was not giving it up. He’s very good. I tried!
BlacKkKlansman hits theaters Aug. 10.