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True Story of BlacKkKlansman Police Officer Ron Stallworth
In 1978, after responding to an ad in a local newspaper, Ron Stallworth—the first black detective in Colorado Springs Police Department history—got a call from a man starting a chapter of the regional Klu Klux Klan. Then, as he later said in an NPR interview, he convinced the man on the other end of the phone that he was a white supremacist:
I told him that I was a white man, that I hated blacks, Jews, Mexicans, Asians; that I thought the white man had not gotten a fair deal in this country; I was really upset because my sister had dated a black guy and it offended me that his black hands had touched her white body; and as a result, I wanted to join the group and do what I could to put a stop to all of this nonsense.He told me that I was the exact kind of person that they were looking for, and he was very enthusiastic about meeting with me.
This is nearly word-for-word (fewer racial slurs for public radio, of course) what John David Washington’s version of Stallworth says in Spike Lee’s Oscar-nominated BlacKkKlansman. The film is inspired by actual events, which Stallworth outlined in his unbelievable 2014 memoir Black Klansman: Race, Hate, and the Undercover Investigation of a Lifetime, in which Stallworth infiltrated the KKK and found himself face to face with Grand Wizard David Duke.
What’s equally impressive is that Lee’s version of the events are shockingly close to the actual events—even by Hollywood’s standards.
“I wanted them to stay true to basic law enforcement concepts as much as possible,” Stallworth, who consulted on the film, told The Denver Post. “I recognize they had to tweak it, and I gave them lots of notes, but I’m very happy with how it turned out because it portrays the truth of the situation.”
Though the film plays with the truth in a few key moments, it remains faithful to actual events—especially when compared to other Best Picture nominees. It’s an interesting year for the Academy Award for Best Picture when six of the eight nominees are based loosely on real events. Bohemian Rhapsody twists the truth of Freddie Mercury’s time with Queen in a questionable way. Green Book’s telling of Dr. Don Shirley’s life has been disavowed by the famed pianist’s family. Roma is loosely based on director Alfonso Cuaron’s own childhood. The Favourite morphs the life of Queen Anne into an arthouse black comedy. And Vice is basically a lengthy SNL sketch about Dick Cheney.
So, where exactly did BlacKkKlansman deviate from actual events?
Black Klansman: Race, Hate, and the Undercover Investigation of a Lifetime
Well, Stallworth’s love interest from the film didn’t actually exist. Laura Harrier’s character Patrice was invented for the film. Although Stallworth maintains that he did meet an attractive young woman at a speech by Black Panther leader Stokley Carmichael, he didn’t flirt with her because he was dating the woman who would become his first wife at the time. When Stallworth eventually made contact with the local KKK chapter, he was immediately asked to meet in person as we see in the movie, although the man Stallworth sent to meet with the KKK in real life was an officer named Chuck, who was not Jewish like Adam Driver’s character in the film.
The biggest fabrication in the film is its climactic ending when Connie (Ashlie Atkinson) tries to kill Patrice with a bomb that ends up killing two Klansmen. This was invented for dramatic effect, although Stallworth’s memoir does suggest that one of the men he investigated was later arrested for selling dynamite, blasting caps, fuses, and automatic weapons.
But incredibly, many of the most insane moments from the film are true. For example, Stallworth did really speak with Duke over the phone a number of times, including in one moment where he teases the Grand Wizard by asking him if he was ever concerned that a black man would call him pretending to be white.
As Stallworth recalled to NPR:
“He said you talk like a very smart, intellectual white man, and I can tell by the way you pronounce certain words. I said, give me an example. He said, blacks tend to pronounce the word ARE, he said they pronounce it AR-RA. And he said, I could tell by listening to you that you’re not black because you do not pronounce that word in that manner.”
His investigation also actually uncovered two KKK members with top secret security clearance who worked at NORAD.
And, of course, Stallworth was in fact assigned to protect Duke during a KKK rally and took a picture with him. Like many filmmakers who are adapting true stories would say, BlacKkKlansman is not a documentary, but compared to some of its fellow nominees in telling actual events, it does make the best effort at getting close to the truth.