In a year that has been supremely successful for comic book films, it isn’t hard to get swept up by the excitement and euphoria that comes with watching big budget blockbusters. Yeah, we’ve all seen what Thanos can do with a shiny, jewel encrusted gauntlet, we’ve heard fans repeat T’Challa’s salute “Wakanda forever” and even The Incredibles made their long awaited return to the big screen. But if you take a minute to look outside of that spectrum, there are gems that will challenge your thinking, enrich and entertain. Take BlacKkKlansman for example (pronounced black klansman), Spike Lee’s 2018 biographical film that uses humour, history, action and drama to comment on our current systematic failings and struggles by drawing parallels between present day America and America in the 1970’s.
Given the serious tone and generous servings of personality sprinkled throughout the film (including inspired casting choices in John David Washington, Adam Driver, Jasper Pääkkönen and Corey Hawkins) the movie is able to humorously make its points in a refreshing and factual way, which explains why it deservedly took home the Grand Prix award from the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. Drawing high praise from many quarters, BlacKkKlansman has many critics proclaiming that Spike Lee is back to his creative best. John David Washington in the lead role, gives a passionate depiction of Ron Stallworth, the first black police officer in Colorado Springs who manages to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. I meet John David in the heart of central London on a Tuesday afternoon ahead of the films UK release and we dig into his experience of working with Spike Lee, similarities between America in the 1970’s and present day, differences across the diaspora and whether or not that Soul Train scene needed a stuntman.
Exuding a relaxed demeanour and despite meeting only minutes earlier, I feel an burgeoning rapport with John David as we talk at length (15 minutes if you’re counting). Chuckling frequently, while answering my questions with purpose, he smiles every time a wise crack is made by either of us, which is often. So I inevitably start with the first question which revolves around Spike Lee. In Time Magazine, Lee proclaimed that John David was born to play Ron Stallworth, I ask him directly if he was exaggerating – “I mean that’s the highest compliment from the godfather of this thing, Spike Lee, who we all in the entertainment business, at least in the movie business, are standing on his shoulders, we’re all his kids. So when he blesses you like that, with a compliment like that, with an opportunity like this, like the one I had, it was so inspiring, it was so encouraging I should say and gave me this boost of confidence that I didn’t even know I needed. So I sort of inherently was able to step into the role, because of that confidence this legend gave me.”
I know what this meant, this is like, now I’m officially in a Spike Lee film, or I’m officially connected to all the greats
Judging by his choice of words, it is fair to say that John David hasn’t tired of his new life on a crazy international press run promoting such a weighty film. His constant smile suggests a sense of relief that his acting career is taking a turn that’s favourable to him. I’m curious what his favourite scene from BlacKkKlansman is, and the Spike Lee fan in John David speaks volumes, “See my favourite scene actually was my last day – the famous dolly-pull, Spike Lee dolly, man”, as John David refers to Lee’s technique of featuring characters floating through their surroundings and a signature move that conveys his most integral themes. “I was like spazzing out that day, he actually had a hard day with me, I was acting like a 5 year old, I was like telling Laura, “look we on the dolly man”. I was just yelling, screaming, wasn’t focused, cos I’m like I know what this meant, this is like, now I’m officially in a Spike Lee film, or I’m officially connected to all the greats, all the greats that rode this dolly, you know what I mean. And people like in France, they were cheering when that scene happened, they were clapping, cos they know this is like the famous scene, so that was my favourite day, my best. That and when we all had to dress up. I had been wrapped already, but I came to see Harry Belafonte, and Spike Lee and the whole crew, cast dressed up in suits, tuxes or like suit and tie, and I actually had to go to Zara that morning to get a suit and tie before I even got to set. So it was a whole journey to even get there. But that was one of my favourite days too, Harry Belafonte the great”.
Playing the role of a black police officer in the 1970’s would make for uncomfortable viewing for many African-American people given the long and historically strained relationship with the police. To play one that was trying to infiltrate the Klu Klux Klan however? Outrageous! When I question John David about whether he faced an internal struggle in playing a proud black man who took on the job of the first black cop in his town, he tells me, “I think its the struggle that even in todays times, that police officers at least in America, African-American police officers are dealing with, so it was important for me to be able to authentically, organically go through that. I didn’t wanna show that, “I’m showing you how much I’m stru…” I wanted to live it, I wanted to experience it and I was able to do ride alongs prior to doing this film, I got to talk a lot with Ron in great detail about being a black man in America in those times, let alone a police officer. So all that kind of information, that wealth of information I was able to harness and distribute into the scenes, into this character. Seeing my scene was tough, it was very difficult to do, as John David it was stressful but at the same time I used that kind of stress because it is stressful to be able to go through that. But to be able to show people like me before I was able to come into the information that this is a real struggle for African-American cops. There’s men and women out there doing their job correctly and they’re actually protecting and serving their community, that are not getting credit for and they’re getting blamed for the rest of the people that are corrupt.”
I think there’s a more, a bigger, wider cultural sense of self here than African-Americans.
Our conversation continues and I begin to see the student in JD Washington emerge. He comes across as an strongly educated individual who is keen to learn more about the world surrounding him and his people. Segregation and tribalism could be pointed as the foundation of America as a country, given the slave trade that saw families separated and moved across the fat of the land for many, many years. Inevitably, our talk turns to the diaspora, and I’m curious to see whether he’s noticed any difference between the struggles of black people in the UK and US. “We’re similar in anger, frustration!” he laughs. “You know we got this same rebellious spirit. It seems though, there’s more of a tight knit community here. Seems like the brothers and sisters are sticking together, it seems like we’re a little more tribal – this is just off one night of observation. We seem like we’re a bit more tribal in America you know like “what borough are you from” or “what set you from” or some gang stuff. So we have that sort of divide, but that’s kind of the foundation of the country. I mean they took people from all different tribes, put em on a boat and took em to… I was gonna say took em to Los Angeles [Laughs]… took em to America, took em to Brazil. So it seems like the people here, the brothers and sisters here, are more knowledgeable. I found myself coming here, and I went to a historically black college, I learned a lot about my culture, and I was getting introduced to ideas and spiritual ideas, and religious ideas that I was unaware of. And I think there’s a more, a bigger, wider cultural sense of self here than African-Americans”. John David’s words suggest an acute skill for observation despite his short stay in the UK, and it’s reassuring to see he’s picked up an educated perspective not only to his own journey but of the young minds he’s met here so far.
As the air conditioner in the hotel room starts waning, our conversation starts to become more intense, so in an attempt to lighten the mood, we talk about the humour in BlacKkKlansman. Although Lee has pointedly remarked that the film is not intended to be a comedy, I ask John David if those humorous tones in his portrayal of Ron Stallworth, were intentional, laughingly he immediately tells me – “I definitely didn’t play… I didn’t play for comedy, I mean the hilarity in this is how ridiculous of a scenario that this case really worked, that it all worked out. So we kinda had some freedom to.. explore I’ll say, to explore all types of ways of storytelling, in this particular case, in this particular story. So that was a lot of fun, and Ron himself told me, he had fun with this case, and he’s a very serious man. So I wanted to play it as true as I could.” While based on a real person, John David certainly makes it his own with a matter-of-fact bluntness, that is sure to resonate with British audiences.
“Hell naah man! I’m trying to cut you off – but no. Don’t disrespect me like that bro”, J.D laughingly shouts when I ask if he needed a stuntman for that Soul Train scene. “Every night I went to sleep to Soul Train alright! I was researched, I was ready for that day, yeah thank you man, make sure you write that, or you dap me up on that [chuckling]. It was all me! …It was fun, it was fun, just to be able to … that was a great day, especially to think about the scene that set that up, about the cop harassing, and then we go do that. Cos in real life, we still gotta live, we still gotta keep it going, keep living.”
Today we face a constant stream of Twitter triggers and in the age of Trump, it’s become almost unavoidable on a daily basis, so I’m curious whether John David felt the similarities between the 70s and now. “Yeah the language. The trigger words. Some of these racial slurs, they’re not antiquated, they’re very much contemporary unfortunately. So we are still battling with the same issues. I think we’ve evolved in the form of resistance, #hashtags, social media, through football players – American football players taking the knee. More peaceful, more inclusive ways of trying to bridge the gap, yet showing that we have a lot of work to do. So that I’m proud of and where we’ve come from. Its interesting through I asked my mother and my uncle over the course of a couple months, especially after doing a whole bunch of research on the 60s and 70s, and I asked them “do you think it was more dangerous in the 70’s or now?” And they both said now, they said nowadays it’s more dangerous and they think it’s because of where we are social media wise, and how they’re coming out. Trump has got people coming out and speaking their minds. But I see that as an opportunity, so at least we know where we stand. I would like to know who doesn’t like me. I don’t wanna guess, I don’t wanna have to co-exist not knowing why we can’t be closer or whatever.”
I’m pro-player because I was one. I would like to see, I’ve already seen the African-American football player evolved by doing this.
Given his previous profile as an American football player for teams such as the St. Louis Rams and Sacramento Mountain Lions, it was only right that football analogies follow. With his experiences in the NFL Europe and United Football League, and Trump’s criticism of players taking the knee, John David is well placed to speak on the issue,“I’m pro-player because I was one. I would like to see, I’ve already seen the African-American football player evolved by doing this. I would like them to use their words even more, I would almost encourage these ball players now to almost treat football as the side-hustle and take advantage of the schooling, take advantage of setting yourself up, contingency plans, set yourself up for after life, after football. Because the NFL’s gonna thrive, they’re gonna keep going, they’re gonna keep picking us from.. or they picking us up from, not using us but giving us opportunities to make a living for ourselves. So I’m pro-ballplayer as long as you’re doing it the right way, don’t harm anybody, non-violence, I’m pro-ballplayer… and all colours, not just the black ballplayer”.
It’s likely if I have another occasion to meet John David Washington that this young, hungry African-American brother will have evolved to even greater heights. Eloquent on so many topics while promoting his desire to go on to do meaningful work, much like his character in BlacKkKlansman, he doesn’t seem like the type of person who will be satisfied until he surpasses his potential. So what does it mean for him today to be on the path to a burgeoning career, and in a movie that took home the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival. “I feel like I’m on a superbowl team man. This cast was remarkable, Adam Driver, Topher Grace, Laura Harrier, Bobby [John Burke], Ryan [Eggold], Paul [Walter Hauser] like just can’t, so many people like Corey Hawkins who killed it as Kwame Ture. So I just felt like I was on a superbowl team with some great players, playing for the best coach – ever”.
For John David, the possibilities are endless and as the plaudits continue for the film and his performance, John David Washington is quickly becoming one of the most coveted actors in Hollywood. So what’s next? “I wanna make something impactful, I wanna work with… really its about who I get to work with next. I really wanna work with some visionaries, some people that love the craft and appreciate the process of getting to that story. Earning the right to tell it freely, fluidly and we gotta earn that by getting together, becoming a community and talking, discussing and deciding what the best idea in the room is. Something inclusive, somebody ego-less that’s who I wanna work with”.
Catch BlacKkKlansman in UK cinemas on 24th August, nationwide.