When John David Washington stood up and joined a series of elementary school kids declaring “I am Malcolm X” in Spike Lee’s 1992 movie Malcolm X, he never thought he’d actually become an actor. Much less did he expect to appear in a leading role in a future Spike Lee Joint:
“Everybody was changing, as far as the way we were being treated and seeing how my relationships started to take on different unfamiliar personalities,” says the actor over the phone.
He instead decided to play college football at Morehouse and later signed with the St. Louis Rams. “That kind of anxiety gave me the sort of resentment that built up, that I sort of deposited through football, which I loved as well, and I just started playing,” he says.
Injuries took him out of the game, and Washington ended up looking at acting seriously, most notably playing a football player in the HBO series Ballers. But still, he never thought Uncle Spike, as the director asked a young Washington to call him while shooting Malcolm X, would call him one day with a suggestion that he read Ron Stallworth’s 2014 book Black Klansman.
“I thought perhaps this is a spin-off of Dave Chappelle or Dave Chappelle-skit-inspired, and then it wasn’t,” says Washington. "It was real, and it was a piece of American history."
Stallworth was a retired police officer who, early in his career, infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan. Stallworth, a black man, kicked off the process by calling up a war veteran looking to start a Colorado Springs chapter of the KKK in 1979. With the help of a white narcotics officer wearing a wire, Stallworth was part of an undercover investigation into the Klan that lasted nine months. It was an operation he kept quiet about until the publication of his book.
“I was blown away and extremely excited to be able to be a part of this, especially it being told by the great legendary Spike Lee and Jordan Peele handling it as well,” he notes, giving a shout-out to the Get Out director who is also one of BlacKkKlansman’s producers.
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Though Washington met the book’s author before production began, he didn't get to really know the man until well into the process. He was impressed at his directness and “how unapologetic he was for his mission.” Washington says the real Stallworth had an acute awareness of the politics of the era. In particular, "what it was like to be an African-American man in those times. That being said, he also wanted to serve his community. He wanted to rid it of criminal activity... and unfortunately, with that job, the duality of it is, are you black or are you blue? Sometimes they make you choose community, and sort of walking that fine line, I was able to find a lot of great tidbits and nuggets that he was giving to me to be able to put into the character for the film.”
Washington has grown a lot as an actor between his two Spike Lee movies. “I was a little calmer this time, more seasoned,” he says, only partly joking. “I had a couple of things under my belt, including Malcolm X; no such thing as small roles, only small actors, so I felt like that was just as important in the '90s as it is today with this role.”
He speaks highly of Lee as an artist, especially because he felt he was treated as a collaborator. “This legendary man trusted me with the material and wanted me to bring what I thought needed to be brought to the performance, and he only stripped down stuff, but he never suggested or gave me notes of any kind," he says. "I’ve never had that happen before. It was the most freedom I’ve ever had in a creative space as an artist, and I’ll never forget him for it. I mean, a legend trusted me with that. What it does to your confidence is just... I can’t really verbalize it in full detail. It’s just gonna be a part of me now going forward.”