Many have never heard of John David Washington, but they know his father, Denzel. The two appeared briefly together in Spike Lee's 1992 masterpiece Malcolm X, for which father was nominated for an Oscar and son was a mere boy of 8, playing a student in a Harlem classroom.
Well, John David is all grown up now and has a Spike Lee movie of his own, BlacKkKlansman, based on Ron Stallworth’s memoir as a black cop who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado in the 1970s.
“Everything case-related, Ku Klux Klan–related, is fact,” Washington assures L.A. Weekly as he recalls meeting with African-American author Stallworth, who was Colorado Springs' first black police detective. During an investigation of the KKK, Stallworth posed as a white man in multiple phone conversations. “He was talking about all those moments on the phone with David Duke and the Klan members and what was going on in his head and how he had to get into character.”
Arriving as a rookie, Stallworth is the station’s only black cop who, despite the usual institutional racism, rises quickly from the records department to undercover assignments. In an impulsive telephone call to the KKK, the rookie stumbles and gives them his real name when introducing himself. “He was so in the moment that he had a brain freeze. I love that moment ’cause it was honest,” Washington laughs.
Obviously, Stallworth cannot meet in person with Klan members, so his partner, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), goes instead, while Stallworth maintains the phone contact. Lee and screenwriters Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott follow the memoir, which recounts how the onscreen duo play the same person until one particularly ardent anti-Semite guesses (correctly) that Zimmerman is Jewish.
“It’s so encouraging because you feel like there are no mistakes,” Washington says about finding the beats and rhythm of scenes with Driver and Lee. “You’re not trying to hit the mark, you’re not trying to hit the note, you’re finding all kinds of notes that you didn’t even know were there until you were in the space, and you’re exploring it with a scene partner. So, [it was] the most collaborative vibe that I’ve ever been a part of, and it opened my eyes to how it can work on set and how you can tell a story.”
In a subplot Washington says was added to the story, Stallworth dates the stunning Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), president of the Black Student Union. Not knowing he’s a cop, she is drawn to him, ultimately becoming the target of a bomb plot.
Meanwhile, Stallworth is chosen to be bodyguard to Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace in a hilarious turn) during a visit to Colorado Springs. What Duke doesn’t know is the new Klan recruit he’s been phone buddies with over the past few months is the black man standing before him.
Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, BlacKkKlansman represents a return to form for Lee, who directed seminal movies including She’s Gotta Have It, Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X before slipping away from mainstream filmmaking, making smaller movies for a shrinking audience.
“I learned so much from this man on how to tell stories and be in this business,” Washington says of Lee, with whom he spent preproduction on Martha’s Vineyard watching 1970s classics like The French Connection.”Not only was he my director but it really felt like a teachable moment even when he wasn’t directly teaching me anything. He’s a man of process. It really encouraged me to never compromise your process.”
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After graduating from Howard University, Washington spent five years playing pro ball, first on the St. Louis Rams workout squad and then in the United Football League. But after a torn meniscus, broken ribs and five concussions, the 5-foot-10-inch, 208-pound running back hung up his cleats and, in 2012, opted to forge a career in the illustrious footsteps of his father. He began by booking his very first audition, as Ricky Jerret alongside Dwayne Johnson on HBO’s Ballers, before working in movies.
It’s turning out to be Washington’s year, with not only BlacKkKlansman hitting theaters but also Monster, a 2018 Sundance Grand Jury nominee, and the upcoming Monsters and Men, a 2018 Sundance Special Jury Prize winner. This fall he will be seen in the Fox Searchlight Oscar entry The Old Man & the Gun, starring Robert Redford. It’s no coincidence that each film has something to say about policing and the criminal justice system.
“Those are the kinds of films I like to seek out and be a part of," Washington says. "There’s real truth to the plot and the stories, and real issues that people are going through. There seems to be a platform and a space within the industry where they're going to start giving people money to talk about these issues and the differences within our culture.
"Spike Lee’s been doing it for a long time now. We’re all standing on his shoulders,” Washington says of a man he describes as "Master Sensei." “Our film is a piece of American history. It’s a great time to celebrate these kinds of films. It’s a great time for films right now and filmmakers of color, all different backgrounds and gender. It's a great time.”