(Spoiler warning: Go see Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” before you read this. It’s great.)
The notion of a black man joining the Ku Klux Klan seems so absurd that Dave Chappelle’s skit about a blind, African-American who dons KKK robs is one of the absurdist highlights of “Chappelle’s Show.” But Colorado Springs Police Det. Ron Stallworth infiltrated the Klan in almost exactly the way portrayed in Spike Lee’s totally engrossing new film, “BlacKkKlansman.”
The film’s marketers want to make sure no one mistakes Lee’s drama for a satire. Posters for the film spell out explicitly that the movie, which premieres Friday, is based on a “crazy, outrageous, incredible true story.”
That said, “BlacKkKlansman” is a movie, and it follows the Hollywood tradition of condensing time and events, ratcheting up stakes for the added satisfaction of we, the viewers. The film creates composite characters, invents characters to give voice to certain ideas or to move the plot along, and, includes a couple of incredibly tense scenes that don’t seem to have happened in real life — at least, not to Ron Stallworth.
None of this distracts from its main story of how a black cop outwitted white supremacists at every turn — or its message about the destructive power of people on the furthest fringes of society. It tells us to be as sharp and vigilant against bigotry as Det. Stallworth.
We’ve highlighted some of the most crazy, outrageous and incredible moments in “BlacKkKlansman” to report to you what actually happened, according to Stallworth’s excellent memoir, “Black Klansman.” (Note the slight difference in the titles.)
Did Ron Stallworth really infiltrate the Klan over the phone? Yes, and it happened in the movie almost exactly as it happened in the book. He even used his own real name, just like in the film.
In the movie, Ron (John David Washington) enlists a Jewish fellow detective named Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), to play Ron Stallworth when the Klansmen meet Ron in person. In his memoir, Stallworth said he enlisted a white detective named Chuck to play Ron in face-to-face interactions with the Klan. There’s no mention of Chuck being Jewish. But making him Jewish in the movie raises the potential risks for Flip, and compels him to ask questions about his own identity and values.
Did a Klansman really give Flip a lie detector test to see if he was Jewish? In the film, Felix (Jasper Paakkonen) tries to test whether Flip-as-Ron is Jewish. There is no mention of such a test in Stallworth’s book. The entire sequence — including the real Ron throwing something through the Klan couple’s window to interrupt the test, and Flip running outside shooting at Ron’s truck, appears to be an invention. But it serves several purposes for the script, including raising tension and showing how Flip won the Klan’s trust quickly.
Was Ron Stallworth really assigned to be David Duke’s bodyguard? According to the book, yes! More amazingly, he was assigned to keep an eye on Duke at the same time Chuck (Flip in the movie) was undercover as Ron. The part about a convict recognizing Flip-as-Ron, though, seems to have been an invention of the screenwriters.
Did Ron really take a picture with David Duke? Yep, while he was his bodyguard. The scene in “BlacKkKlansman” depicting one of the most awkward Polaroids in history happened almost exactly as it happens in Stallworth’s book. And he really did throw his arms around the shoulders of Duke and another Klansman just as Chuck took their picture. (Later, according to the book, Stallworth called Duke on the phone, again pretending to be white Klansman Ron Stallworth. Duke told him that his interaction with the black cop had been the only negative part of his trip to Colorado.)
Were there really two men who worked at NORAD in the Klan? Horribly, yes! Stallworth writes in “Black Klansman” that on Jan. 14, 1979, he received a visit from two agents of the Peterson Air Force Base Office of Special Investigations. The OSI agents asked to see his “list of names of those Klan members with a military connection.” They read the list, then took Stallworth to the U.S.-Canadian North American Aerospace Defense Command, a top-security-clearance facility built to withstand a nuclear bomb — and responsible for protecting all of North America.
Stallworth says in the book that they drove him down a dark tunnel, where he again shared his list with a black, high-ranking deputy commander. It turned out, Stallworth wrote, that two men on his list of Klansmen were NORAD personnel with top security clearance. (What happened to them next is pretty hilarious — we really recommend reading the book.)
Did the Klan really watch “Birth of a Nation”? D.W. Griffith’s 1916 film, which portrays Klansmen as heroes, was such a hit that it helped revitalize the once-nearly extinct KKK. In a powerful, devastating sequence featuring Harry Belafonte, Lee explains how the film’s pro-Klan propaganda led to a rise of lynching in the South. Yes, Stallworth said Klansmen really did watch it during his investigation.
Did the explosion outside Patrice’s house really kill Klansmen? In the film, Connie (Ashlie Atkinson), wife of Felix (Jasper Paakkonen), tries to kill Patrice (Laura Harrier) by putting a bomb in her mailbox. When it won’t fit, she instead puts it under Patrice’s sweet red VW. Felix, Connie and even Patrice (sorry!) all appear to be inventions of the film, and Stallworth makes no mention of a bombing in “Black Klansman” like the one seen in “BlacKkKlansman.”
But: The book says one of the Klansmen Stallworth investigated, Chuck Howarth, was among 10 people arrested in May 1982 and accused of selling dynamite, blasting caps, fuses, and automatic weapons. “When a search warrant was executed at his business, investigators found KKK robes and literature,” Stallworth writes. The book says he turned out to be the apparent leader of the Klans of America. Stallworth believes he might have been able to stop Howarth’s rise if his real-life investigation wasn’t cut short — just like it was in the film.