One can be forgiven for thinking the “true story” behind BlacKkKlansman, the 2018 Spike Lee film, was a work of fiction. The film follows a Black police officer as he infiltrates and investigates the KKK in the late ‘70s. Though it sounds like an outlandish premise, that’s exactly what Colorado Springs Police Department detective Ron Stallworth did. Stallworth is the film’s protagonist, and he’s played by John David Washington.
The movie, which is based on a book written by Stallworth, tells his story with relative accuracy – for Hollywood, that is. While the film does take some notable deviations from reality, they’re mostly for plot-related reasons and they do nothing to diminish the undeniable truth: Detective Stallworth’s investigation remains one of the most ironically vengeful acts of deception in modern history, and a story more than worthy of a little mythologizing.
Stallworth is the subject of BlacKkKlansman and the author of the book Black Klansman: Race, Hate, and the Undercover Investigation of a Lifetime, and those two titles serve as a fair summation of Stallworth’s story.
However, Stallworth was a noteworthy individual long before that investigation of a lifetime occurred. When he joined the Colorado Springs Police Department as an officer in 1974, he was the first African American to graduate from the Police Cadet Program. He took on a number of undercover assignments and rose to the rank of detective in the years before he began his investigation into the Klu Klux Klan in 1978.
The film BlacKkKlansman depicts Stallworth’s investigation as beginning with a phone call, but according to an interview with Business Insider, it actually started with a newspaper ad. The following is Stallworth's response to the advertisement:
I'm Sergeant Ron Stallworth, retired. When I was the detective at the Colorado Springs Police Department, in 1978, I launched an investigation into the Ku Klux Klan, a chapter that was forming and trying to expand, in my city. I launched it based on seeing a want ad in the classified section of the newspaper, and there was a P.O. Box number. I wrote a note, a letter if you will, to that P.O. Box. I basically said, "I hate n******, s****, c*****, J***, J***, and anybody else who isn't pure Aryan White like me.
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.
Without necessarily meaning to, Stallworth had begun his infiltration of the KKK.
Stallworth’s investigation of the KKK was already gutsy, but actually meeting with the Klan in person would have been suicidal. For that reason, Stallworth brought a partner to stand in for him at meetings. Adam Driver plays a loose adaptation of this officer in BlacKkKlansman. As Stallworth tells it to NPR:
I then went to a white undercover narcotic officer, a good friend of mine, wired the officer up for sound, and sent him into the location; and that's how we conducted this investigation over the next eight or nine months or so. Did most of the talking on the phone with these individuals; and when it came time for physical contact, the face to face meeting, I would send the white officer in posing as me.