In BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee tells the story of real-life cop Ron Stallworth’s infiltration of the the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s. The film has been lauded by critics and filmgoers across the board, and rightfully so – it’s seriously funny and surprisingly hard-hitting, which is a rather difficult balance to strike.
But last week, a dissenting voice rose from Lee’s own peer group. Boots Riley, the rapper and director of this year’s Sorry To Bother You – an equally political satire which stars Atlanta’s Lakeith Stansfield as a salesman who puts on a “white voice” in order to boost his sales – posted a considered three-page critique of the film on Twitter, suggesting that Lee and the film’s writers softened the Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington) story in order to “make a cop the protagonist in the fight against racist oppression”.
Riley claims that Stallworth’s memoir, which formed the basis for the film, glosses over his involvement in the police’s efforts to bring down black radical organisations, and that the script adds in entirely fictional events to make the police come across as heroic.
Much of the story is difficult to verify, as the records of the case were destroyed – meaning that Stallworth’s word must be taken as gospel, or not (he shot down Riley’s critique with a short note: “I pray for my demented and dissolute brother.”). But there are elements of the story that we know to be false, like the bomb plot at the climax of the film, which is quite integral. As Riley noted in a later tweet, there is nothing wrong with changing a true story, but the impact of these changes is relevant, particularly when the subject matter is as sensitive as it is here.
I want to make clear that I support changing true stories. I definitely will. The question is- what story do the changes tell? What are you changing that world to say?
Below, we take a look at which parts of the film we know happened in real life, what was added for dramatic effect and where things get a little blurry…
What did happen
Stallworth’s first interaction with the KKK
The story of Stallworth’s infiltration of the KKK is broadly true – including some hilarious details – as outlined in his 2014 memoir, Black Klansman.
Stallworth joined Colorado Springs police department at the age of 21, becoming the first African-American to graduate through the Police Cadet Programme.
After a few years of pestering the undercover narcotics officers, he was eventually promoted to work as a narc in 1978, and soon got in contact with the KKK via a newspaper ad as depicted in the film.
In an interview with NPR in 2006, Stallworth recounted his first conversation with the Colorado Springs chapter head.
“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,” he said. “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.”
Stallworth’s relationship with David Duke
Topher Grace as David Duke
During his time investigating the KKK, Stallworth really did strike up a friendship – over the phone – with KKK grand wizard David Duke (played in the film by Topher Grace), and he did act as his bodyguard when he arrived in town for white Ron Stallworth’s initiation to the group.
The conversation in the film in which Duke tells Stallworth over the phone that he would never fear that a black man would be able to trick him into believing he is white over the phone, is true also.
“I asked him how he could tell that he was talking to a black person,” Stallworth told NPR. “His response to me was, ‘well, I can tell that you’re white because you don’t talk like a black man. 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.’”
The Black Panther Rally
Stallworth’s first undercover assignment was indeed the infiltration of a black power rally led by Stokely Carmichael (who went by the name of Kwame Ture), a prominent figure in the civil rights movement.
And, according to the police officer’s memoir, Carmichael told him to arm himself for the coming revolution when he approached him at the end of the talk.
Riley, however, contests this. “I’ve met Kwame Ture two or three times, and heard him speak more than that,” he writes. “If you really went up to him and asked him what we should do right now – as Ron Stallworth does in the film – he would have said what he usually said; ‘Study!!!’ but it made the black radical group look more dangerous to have Ture say something that sounded like he was calling for armed insurrection – which they were not calling for in the US at the time.”
What didn’t happen
The bomb plot
The plot which sees a KKK member’s wife attempt to plant a bomb at a civil rights rally is entirely fictionalised. Throughout the duration of Stallworth’s investigation, the only illegal activity that he heard chatter of was the bombing of the town’s two gay bars, though this never came to fruition.
In fact, he says there was no conflict whatsoever during his stint in the KKK. He writes in his memoir that they were in no way suspicious of him – that the “Jew lie detector test” never actually happened, and Stallworth’s white colleague who played him (portrayed in the film by Adam Driver) was not Jewish. In his book, the former police officer is very dismissive about the intelligence of the klansmen and their ability to craft anything beyond a cross-burning. In particular “Ken [the local organiser], who was – I can’t stress this enough – a total idiot”.
The racist cop bust
Towards the end of the film, there is a scene in which Stallworth tricks a racist cop into admitting that he had sexually assaulted his girlfriend – a fictional character, and active participant in the civil rights movement – during a routine stop-and-search. Then, other members of the police department burst in and arrest him.
This never happened, and Riley takes particular issue with how this has been presented. “This was put in the movie to make Ron and the rest of the police look like they were interested in fighting racism, like they don’t all protect whatever racist and abusive cops are in there,” he wrote. “This is a scene where the whole police force – chief and all – work together with the fictional black radical love interest to set the one racist cop up. Never happened. Never would.”
The extent of Stallworth’s infiltration of the black radical movement
Throughout the film, a parallel is drawn between the Black Panthers and the Ku Klux Klan, as two radical organisations who are ready and willing to get violent to further their cause. The KKK are clearly the true villains, but the Black Panthers also represent a threat to peace and propriety.
This is the viewpoint of the police at the time, and we see that there are efforts to keep both at bay – but this is only surface-level. Stallworth’s only involvement in this is at the beginning of the film when he attends the Kwame Ture rally, and this, Riley suggests, was only the tip of the iceberg. “Here is what we know,” he wrote. “The real Ron Stallworth infiltrated a black radical organisation for three years (not for one event like the movie portrays) where he did what all papers from the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (CoIntelPro) that were found through the Freedom of Information Act tell us he did – sabotage a Black radical organisation whose intent had to do with at the very least fighting racist oppression.”
He continued: “CoIntelPro papers show us that these police infiltrators worked to try to disrupt the organisations through things like instigating infighting, acting crazy to make the organisations look bad… Ron Stallworth was part of CoIntelPro. CoIntelPro’s objectives were to destroy radical organisations, especially black radical organisations.”