Ron Stallworth’s life story is hard to believe. A black cop infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan? Even other law enforcement agents who became aware of the operation in 1970s Colorado couldn’t believe he was actually getting away with it — but he did, and it made for a bitingly original story in the form of his 2014 memoir, Black Klansman.
Spike Lee and Jordan Peele thought so as well. The powerhouse director and producer brought the story to the screen as BlacKkKlansman, starring John David Washington as Stallworth and Adam Driver as his partner. The film was released in select cities Friday, to critical acclaim and solid box office numbers.
While the story seems made for a big-screen adaptation, it wasn’t immune to some classic Hollywood tweaking. To get a better sense of how the film was conceived, we’ve outlined some of the biggest changes that the screenwriting team — Lee, David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel, and Kevin Willmott — made to Stallworth’s book.
1. No love interest in the Black Student Union
The film makes Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), president of the Black Student Union at Colorado Springs’ local university, a main character in the story and Stallworth’s love interest. In the book, Stallworth does meet a girl while he’s undercover at a Stokely Carmichael speech, but he never sees or speaks to her again. He also reveals that by the time he went undercover, he was already dating the woman who would later become his wife.
2. Stokely Carmichael, not Kwame Ture
While the black characters in the film make it a point to call Stokely Carmichael by his adopted name of Kwame Ture (played by Corey Hawkins), he is referred to by his birth name in the book.
3. Flip wasn’t the only cop who went undercover in the field, and he had a different background
In the movie, Stallworth’s Jewish colleague Flip Zimmerman (Driver) is the sole undercover officer who infiltrates the Klan in person (while Stallworth does so over the phone). In the book, Stallworth is able to get a second officer into the Klan, posing as his partner’s recruit. Stallworth’s partner in the book is also not Jewish, and is referred to only as Chuck.
4. No all-male KKK chapter
The film features an all-male Klan chapter in Colorado Springs, but in the book, the chapter includes a female member named Carol. A truck driver, Carol reveals that she joined the Klan after being sexually assaulted by members of the Black Panthers.
5. The cops, the Black Student Union, and the KKK aren’t the only groups featured
The film focuses on three distinct groups, with conflicting interests: The KKK seeks to promote its racist ideology, the Black Student Union aims to empower the black community, and the Colorado Springs Police Department is mostly concerned with maintaining order. (Stallworth finds himself torn between his belief in the ideals of the BSU and his job as a police officer.) In the book, Stallworth paints a more complex picture, not only featuring the BSU and the KKK, but also including groups like Posse Comitatus (a far-right survivalist group allied with the Klan), the International Committee Against Racism, the Progressive Labor Party, LAMECHA, People for the Betterment of People, and Anti-Racist Coalition. Stallworth examines these different groups and their motivations in detail, offering a more nuanced depiction of the social and political climate.
6. No stereotypical racist cop
In the movie, Master Patrolman Andy Landers (Frederick Weller) is a thorn in the side of Colorado Springs’ black community, assaulting people of color both verbally and physically. The character represents corruption and racism within the police force. Landers does not exist in the book, though Stallworth does encounter a fair share of prejudice.
7. No bomb-planting wives
One of the most disturbing characters in the film is Connie (Ashlie Atkinson), the wife of hotheaded Klan member Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen). Sporting an impenetrable smile, she waits on her husband and the other Klansmen, says the N-word with ease, and dreams of killing black people. Eventually, Connie attempts to make those dreams a reality. In the book, Connie does not exist, though Stallworth does write of one KKK member’s Mexican wife who supports her husband’s racial hatred and helps host Klan meetings in their home.
8. No big action moment at the climax
Lee’s film culminates in an action sequence that results in Connie’s botched bombing attempt, her arrest, and the end of the undercover investigation. In real life, there was no bombing attempt, and the undercover operation was ended abruptly in fear of a PR nightmare for the department if anyone were to find out that local police officers were connected to the Klan, regardless of the reason.
9. The ending
The film concludes with a cross burning in a remote location and ties in the current social and political climate of America, including the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, one year ago. The book ends with Stallworth stealing documents for proof of the investigation (which were later used to write the book), and a cross being burned outside the black club in which Stokely Carmichael spoke at the beginning of the book, with Stallworth revealing that no one was ever held responsible.