SALT LAKE CITY — As racist diatribes go, this one was right up there.
“I hate blacks. I hate Jews, Mexicans and Irish. Italians and Chinese. But, my mouth to God’s ears, I really hate those black rats — and anyone else, really, that doesn’t have pure, white Aryan blood running through their veins.”
Those words, uttered by John David Washington in the trailer for Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman,” introduced Ron Stallworth to the world last May.
It’s a jarring intro, one that hits like a tidal wave. And that’s fitting: The portion of Stallworth’s story that “BlacKkKlansman” tells — when he infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan as a young police detective in 1979 — has come in waves, after decades of relative silence.
Stallworth broke that silence in 2006 — in Utah — when he retold those exploits to a Deseret News reporter. That article became patient zero, as national TV news outlets, syndicated columnists and book publishers began relaying Stallworth’s story to the world.
It took another 12 years, though, for his destined-for-Hollywood exploits to hit the big screen. What took so long?
We looked into it. Here’s what Stallworth and other players in that 12-year process told us.
Signed, sealed, delivered
Deborah Bulkeley didn’t plan to interview Ron Stallworth about the Ku Klux Klan. Stallworth, who had recently retired from Utah’s Department of Public Safety, agreed to meet with Bulkeley, a Deseret News reporter at the time, in 2006 for a career retrospective. Stallworth had experienced plenty of other adventures in law enforcement — he testified before Congress, wrote books on gang culture and helped form Utah’s first drug task force. But when Bulkeley asked Stallworth to pick his most significant career moment, he pulled out his Ku Klux Klan membership card from his wallet.
The card was even signed by David Duke, the Klan’s former grand wizard.
Almost 30 years earlier, Stallworth had called Duke personally, pretending to be white, and convinced Duke to expedite his membership process. At the time, Stallworth had been infiltrating and investigating the KKK’s ranks in Colorado Springs. After befriending Duke and other Klan members over the phone, he would send a white detective in his place for in-person meet-ups.
Stallworth said he didn’t expect Bulkeley’s article to focus on the KKK sting. But a great story is a great story.
“He had a good sense of humor,” Bulkeley recently told the Deseret News. “He definitely had the right personality for doing it — he would probably be good undercover.”
Bulkeley’s piece quickly began making the rounds. Within two days of its publishing, Stallworth said producers from “The Montel Williams Show” and “The Tyra Banks Show” contacted him. After he agreed to appear on those programs, “The Oprah Winfrey Show” contacted him. They told Stallworth that Winfrey only did exclusives, so Stallworth quickly canceled the other two appearances.
“Within a half hour, Oprah’s producer called me back and said, ‘Oprah’s had a change of heart, she’s going in a different direction, but thanks for your time,’” Stallworth recalled.
Though Bulkeley’s article was the starting point for it all, she’s quick to deflect credit.
“I think his story was so good, it probably would have gotten out somehow,” Bulkeley said. “I don’t think I can necessarily take credit for getting his story out.”
In fact, she didn’t realize Stallworth’s story had become a movie until she saw the trailer — and when large news outlets, in turn, began contacting her recently.
David Duke’s denial
While the “Oprah” interview fell through, Stallworth’s story got out through other avenues. Leonard Pitts, a nationally syndicated columnist for the Miami Herald (and also a person of color) quickly took notice.
Within weeks of the Deseret News story, Pitts interviewed Stallworth, and reached out to David Duke for comment. Duke replied to Pitts via email — “That was probably better for me,” Pitts said, “I don’t know how much professionalism I would have been able to maintain in a telephone interview.” But the “bigot-in-chief,” as Pitts called him, downplayed how much interaction he’d had with Stallworth all those years ago.
“Not only do you have Stallworth telling you the story and talking about what happened, but you have the object of the sting sitting there saying, ‘I wasn’t stung’ … which just made it that much better for me as a writer,” Pitts remembered. “It was audacious for (Stallworth) to decide to do, and it was just hilarious that they fell for it.”
Buzz around Stallworth’s story died down for a few years. The retired detective finished a degree in criminal justice, and taught criminal justice courses at Salt Lake Community College from 2007 to 2013, according to the college’s records. During those years he met Pete Bollinger, a retired police sergeant from California who had launched Police and Fire Publishing, a small publishing company, some years earlier. Police and Fire aims to tell true stories of firefighters and law enforcement officers, and Stallworth’s KKK sting fit the bill.
“I told him, ‘This story you have, it’s one in a million. It’s a movie. You need to get it out there,’” Bollinger recalled. “He said, ‘Yeah, I’ve had my 15 minutes of fame already, and it didn’t work out.’”
Once Stallworth finished teaching college courses in 2013, he started writing what would become “Black Klansman,” the memoir eventually adapted for Spike Lee’s film. As Stallworth tells it, “I just one day picked up pen and paper and started writing. I didn’t come to any big epiphany or anything.” Police and Fire published this version, which Stallworth described as a police procedural book.
“When the book went out, I was expecting it to go crazy,” Bollinger said. “Well, it didn’t.”
Despite the relatively low book sales, Hollywood still took notice once Bollinger enlisted some marketing help.
“It was like it was brand new again,” Bollinger said. “Even though (Deborah Bulkeley’s) article had been around for a while, it was like they were discovering this for the first time. We had, like, 50 Hollywood people call us. They wanted the rights, they wanted meetings, they wanted everything.”
After vetting potential suitors, Bollinger said they signed a contract with the Gotham Group, a management/production company responsible for the “The Maze Runner” film series. To Stallworth’s and Bollinger’s surprise, though, the company shelved the project, and it eventually fell back into Stallworth’s and Bollinger’s hands once the option was up.
“And Ron was not happy,” Bollinger said. “He was like, ‘Hey, I’m not getting any younger here.’ All the pandemonium and excitement wanes eventually.”
“People in Hollywood will say things one minute and change it the next,” Stallworth added. “And until you get it committed in writing, in a contract form, don’t believe any of it.”
Some things change, some never do
Once they regained the film rights, Stallworth and Bollinger began the whole process again. And, according to Bollinger, producers and screenwriters once again took notice. One of those was Charlie Wachtel, a relatively unknown and unproven screenwriter at the time. Wachtel and his writing partner, David Rabinowitz, wanted a stab at Stallworth’s story.
Stallworth remembers driving to Utah from New Mexico in 2014 when he got Wachtel’s initial phone call. Stallworth and Bollinger agreed to let the duo write a script, on the condition that Stallworth would own the script and have the final say on what became of it. On their fifth draft, Stallworth finally gave his approval, and Wachtel and Rabinowitz sent the script up the Hollywood food chain.
It made its way to Jordan Peele (the writer/director of last year’s Oscar-winning “Get Out”), who then pitched it to Spike Lee, and they all reached a deal. Once the film started coming together, Police and Fire Publishing signed an agreement with a larger publishing outfit, Flatiron Books, to re-release Stallworth’s memoir. This Flatiron version, Stallworth said, turned the “Black Klansman” book into a more narrative-driven story, instead of the first version’s more police procedural style. It hit bookstores in June of this year, shortly after the film’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the festival's prestigious Grand Prix award.
“The book tells the truth,” Stallworth said. “The movie captures about 90 percent of it and then tweaks the other 10.” (Though, for the record, Stallworth said he’s quite pleased with how the film turned out.)
Spike Lee’s additions, which have gained considerable attention, include video footage from last year’s deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Lee placed that somber footage in the film’s final moments, putting Stallworth’s experience in its proper context: The blood of white supremacy is still on America’s hands, just as it was 40 years ago when Stallworth was a young detective. In a Time magazine cover story, author Rembert Browne called the film’s coda “a necessary gut punch both for those who internalized the film as another dark reminder of our country’s history and those who wrongfully spent two hours treating it as a buddy-cop comedy.”
“It just reminded me how much we’ve changed and yet how little we’ve changed fundamentally — how bright is the neon line that connects our current political … situation … to the times and the situation that Ron’s character was dealing with in the movie,” Leonard Pitts told the Deseret News. “This is not a period piece. This happened in the ’70s, but it was about attitudes and behaviors that are still very much with us, and very much alive — in some ways more alive now than they were back then.”
Effective rule breaking
“BlacKkKlansman” has grossed nearly $50 million, according to Box Office Mojo. Barb Guy, the Salt Lake Film Society’s public relations director, said “BlacKkKlansman” has maintained a robust audience at downtown’s Broadway Centre Cinemas since its August premiere. And now, two months later, it still remains in the Broadway’s rotation. In many ways, “BlacKkKlansman” is a return to form for the ever-provocative Spike Lee.
The film’s success has also buoyed sales of Stallworth’s book, which has been on the New York Times’ paperback nonfiction best seller list for nine weeks, currently sitting at No. 13. Stallworth has been involved in the film’s publicity, and said he's booked numerous speaking engagements across the country, which regularly take him away from his current home in El Paso, Texas.5 comments on this story
With the book’s success, the film’s impact and its potential Oscar nominations, the fictional Ron Stallworth has become increasingly recognizable. And, talking to the real life Stallworth over the phone, he doesn’t seem dissimilar. Though, by his own admission, the film softens his rough edges sometimes.
“Maybe I was more in your face,” he said of his Colorado Springs days. “I didn’t take a lot of crap from people, and I didn’t follow the conventional rules of behavior that we’re supposed to follow — because if I had, I never would have accomplished what I did.”