John David Washington and the Responsibility of Taking on 'BlacKkKlansman'
Spike Lee is back and in rare form with his latest feature BlacKkKlansman, a crime film inspired by incredible true events. His latest film features John David Washington – son of longtime Lee collaborator Denzel Washington – in the titular role, as well as Adam Driver and Laura Harrier in supporting roles.
Imagine if you will, the Ku Klux Klan, one of the country’s oldest hate groups – founded on extremely racist views – extending membership to an African-American man. This isn’t a fictitious tale for your viewing enjoyment to ease the strain of living in present day America. This is Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, an outrageous true story that takes you on a wild ride. Lee’s latest offering was adapted from the autobiographical book Black Klansmanby Ron Stallworth, a Colorado Springs police officer who organized his very own mission impossible when he conducted his own undercover investigation into the Ku Klux Klan.
The film details Stallworth’s (Washington) mission as he charms his way into the notorious organization with the help of his colleague detective Flip Zimmerman (Driver). We follow Stallworth and Zimmerman as they infiltrate the Klan. The film's plot is only half of the delight with the movie's dialogue and Lee’s patented monologues opening the door to bigger problems in society that we as a country still haven’t escaped.
Though we don’t find the director delving into any unfamiliar territory with this film, the aid of the frighteningly reflective social and political climate of the present day gives the film a colorful gloss. BlacKkKlansman carries itself with a flare that will make you chuckle, but will also ignite serious discussion like only the maestro can.
We caught up with John David Washington in NYC last week to chat about the responsibility of taking on the starring role in the film, the difference between playing a fictional football star and a real person, what it's like working with Lee, and more.
First thing’s first, how did you first become involved with the project?
John David Washington: I got a text message from Spike Lee out of nowhere like, "Yo, this is Spike, call me." My initial reaction was “Yeah, right.” I did call just in case it was him though. So I called. He was like, " Yo John, where you at?" I was like, "I'm in Cincinnati, I'm shooting another film." He tells me, "All right, there's this project, there's a book I want you to read. Black man in Colorado, detective, Ku Klux Klan, he infiltrates, he investigates," I'm like, "What?" It's sounding like Dave Chappelle a little bit, like all right, so this is kind of a comedy silly thing." But it's Spike Lee, so I'm like, "All right, cool, send the book." So I got it the next day.
When I read it and I found out the story of what happened, I just went crazy. I couldn't believe it. So I called him like, "Yo Spike, this is amazing, man. This really happened? This is crazy. Who is this guy?" I mean like, obviously I read it but, I'm asking him ... "You know this guy?" Like, "Have you met him?" And, "Yeah, yeah, we got it, me, Jordan Peele, it's on. See you this summer." I was like, psh, bet. That was it, so that's how I got involved. That was the process.
I’m assuming you met Ron Stallworth. What was that experience like?
JDW: Meeting him was ... it's interesting when you do the research and I've seen the footage and read the book. You know, he almost feels like an Avenger character like he wasn't even real, you know what I mean? Like just getting the myth of the man, you know, so meeting him and then he passed around the membership card, the Ku Klux Klan card. He is a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
He’s passing around the daggone card during the table read signed by David Duke. I couldn't believe this dude pulled this off. So meeting him I was excited and then we just developed a relationship from then on. And I was talking to him weekly, and I'd check in, he'd check in, and stuff like that.
I was first introduced to your work throughBallers**. Your portrayal of Ricky Jerret was much different than your portrayal of Ron Stallworth.** What influences the way you approach a particular character?
JDW: Influences ... I mean, the time and space where the story's taking place, this is a period piece, it was the '70s. So what does that mean? I gotta read up on what it felt like to be in the '70s as a Black man. I can do it through music, through just whatever, the entertainment outlets like television and plenty of documentaries. I mean, [I] eliminated rap and R&B from my diet, from my life for like almost three months. I was strictly '70s music, '60s music, and television and programming.
It's a different kind of responsibility than it is playing a ball player. I mean, a ball player's more of an experience, it wasn't based on one person. That guy was based off experiences by these young African-American men in the league. Just men in the league, period. (I don't even say African American.) Just football, what it's like being a ball player now. Then, it's I'm representing an actual person that's still living today, so it's not more pressure, but it's just different.
With all of that, I work inside out. I just wanted to make sure I got all the information I could. Then on game day you kind of gotta leave it alone and just trust the process. That's why research is so important, because you wanna research and fill up as much as you can, so you let go on the day, on shooting day.
What’s your take on Spike Lee’s social commentary throughout the film?
JDW: Well, again, it's a period piece but it really felt contemporary, didn't it? You know what I mean? Just, I don't wanna give parts away but there's some conversations even Ron had with his officer -- his chief officer -- that he was, you know, ignorant to the fact that what's happening right now politically would never happen. I think he says that in the movie. But what I loved is the film isn't suggestive in any way. I don't think Spike was trying to make you get a message, trying to make you laugh, even, if you wanted to ... He just laid it out.
He didn't compromise anything for flow of story, you know what I mean? That's what I love about the film. We've seen it before where directors will try to manipulate certain messages or moments to make sure the audience is still with them or try to evoke certain emotions from them. It can cheapen the product overall. I mean, sometimes those gimmicks work, it depends on the film. But in this story, this specific story, because it's so out there anyway it could seem made up. But because it's true, the hardest part, but I believe we did [...] stick to the truth, stick to what happened.
What do you hope people take away from this? You know, when the audience leaves the theater. What do you expect people to walk away with?
JDW: They can recognize somebody, one of these characters in them. That they can really hear and feel what hate sounds like, and how divided we are as a country because of these words. Maybe we need to start changing the words, maybe we need to start changing how we communicate with one another. Ron said, "I would use trigger words to get in, to infiltrate," and it worked. So having to say those crazy things, that's what hate sounds like. It's like ... well, like being bilingual.
That's a language in itself, hate language. So I think people can take away all this stuff I'm hearing, it's not for comedy purposes. This is what hate sounds like. It's crazy. So we gotta start trying to change that, find a way to somehow come together with right communication, changing our words, changing our language. Being more responsible with our words, too, you know what I mean?
I grew up on Spike Lee films, as I’m sure you did also. What did you feel when the whole process was over? What did you walk away with on a personal level?
JDW: It was a trip seeing one of my heroes yell action and cut to me. You know, directing me. And he didn't direct my performance, necessarily, he really trusted me with my decisions and my choices which is ... that's basically, never really happened before. That kind of trust, that level of trust. So this legend, I'm seeing him on set giggling and smiling but also taking heads off if he had to. Like, he just loves the process. You know, he loves making films.
Where he is in his career where he doesn't have to if he doesn't want to, not only does he want to but he's having a great time doing it. It was inspiring to me and it shows me that I can never, I should never complain, ever. You know what I mean? I should never be an angry Black actor, you know what I mean? This is such a luxury what we get to do to tell stories, it's a privilege.
This is the best job in the world. So I took away like, you can be ... no matter what level you get to, always enjoy it. Always have a love for it, otherwise you shouldn't do it.
I know you're an athlete. What effect, if any, do you feel like your sports background has had on your acting career?
JDW: My preparation, my patience, thicker skin. You know, knowing what rejection feels like. Just life experiences like being ... you know, you get introduced to yourself quick when you're playing with broken ribs in a game. When you've lost time in a quarter, when you've got a concussion and you don't realize it's the second quarter, you thought it was the first. You know, having to be able to deal with embracing [discomfort], knowing that when the uncomfortable is happening that's when true change is happening.
And I can apply that to this industry, I've been on a whole bunch of auditions and failed, but ... I just keep moving on. Actually, when I go into these auditions I don't even go to get the job, I go to do the best I can to tell the truth as a great opportunity to exercise the muscle ... and that's due to the many heartbreaks I had in the NFL, you know. NFL stands for not for long. You know what I mean? So ... it just built my skin up. I was able to create this sort of shield, protection emotionally because of those experiences and I wouldn't change a thing. I didn't go exactly where I wanted to in the NFL or football, period, but it went exactly how it was supposed to go to get me here where I am now.
So, what's next for you?Black Klansmanwas released on August 10th andBallerscame back August 12th. What else should fans be aware of from John David Washington?
I got another one, Monsters and Men, about a police officer, the perspective of an African-American police officer and what's going on right now, police brutality. Like, we don't ever get to see or hear a lot of times what it's like on that side of the law from people [who] look like us, and I'm very excited to be able to express that through this medium. Ron Stallworth, too, in [BlacKkKlansman] is doing the same thing.
I want the men and women who look like us, the minority, to stand up and be proud that they're the ones [who] are doing the job the right way. It's a thankless job. So the ones [who] are doing the job the right way, we recognize you and we need to recognize them more. We need to celebrate them more, the ones [who] are actually protecting and serving their community the correct way.
BlacKkKlansman is now in theaters everywhere.