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**Warning: Spoilers for both book and movie!**
Black Klansman: Race, Hate, and an Undercover Investigation of a Lifetime by Ron Stallworth (2014)
BlackkKlansman directed by Spike Lee (2018)
Ron Stallworth is the first black cop in Colorado Springs. While working intel, he sees an ad for the KKK which is starting a new group in Colorado Springs. Stallworth reaches out, not thinking it is legitimate. Turn out it is legitimate, and he gets a call from the local Klan leader and he wants to meet Stallworth. Stallworth is black, and so can’t actually go meet this guy and claim he wants to be a member. He has a fellow intel guy, Chuck, pose as him and he meets the Klan leader. Stallworth builds a strong relationship with the local Klan leader, as well as leader of the entire Klan, David Duke, by talking to them often on the phone. Chuck meanwhile will appear in person when necessary. Chuck becomes an official member of the KKK, under the name Ron Stallworth. During this three-ish month undercover investigation, they are able to get names of men in high ranking positions who are secretly members, stop cross burnings, prevent riots and other such things.
In the end, the investigation has to end because the local leader has to leave and is really pushing Ron to be in charge. Ron/Chuck can’t do that, so they simply stop answering calls, and change their phone number.
Thoughts on the book
I have the same complaint most Goodreads reviewers have of this book-its poor writing. I didn’t find it boring; it just wasn’t quite as captivating as it could have been. He was also repetitive about things that didn’t seem to matter much. As well as repeatedly airing grievances he had with other cops, which also didn’t matter much in relation to the investigation.
The story itself wasn’t as exciting as I would have thought. This is of course a crazy story, but it’s not like Stallworth himself snuck into the KKK, it was his white friend, Chuck. The card saying he was a member of the Klan may have been in his name, but it was Chuck who actually went through the steps. Stallworth was in charge of the investigation, and he did talk regularly on the phone with various KKK members, including of course, David Duke. Duke, and others, claim they could tell when they were talking to a whiter person or a black person on the phone, which is funny because they unknowingly are bragging to a black man about how they can tell the voices apart.
The story is a bit anticlimactic, but I suppose that’s not Stallworth’s problem. He didn’t embellish the truth and told the story simply as it is. In the book he says, “I have often been asked, “What did you really accomplish over the course of this investigation without arresting any Klan members or seizing any illegal contraband?” or “What are you most proud of where this investigative effort was concerned?” My answer is always in this fashion: “As a result of our combined effort, no parent of a black or other minority child, or any child for that matter, had to explain why an eighteen-foot cross was seen burning at this or that location—especially those individuals from the South who, perhaps as children, had experienced the terrorist act of a Klan cross burning. No child in the city limits of Colorado Springs ever had to experience firsthand the fear brought on by this act of terror. We prevented them from having such an incident burned into their consciousness, as many of their parents might have been imprinted as children. I knew firsthand from direct dealings via my undercover phone conversations with Ken (the local Klan leader) when and where those acts of terror were being planned, and we in the police department were able to put a stop to them. Success in a police investigation does not always rest on how many arrests are made or how much illegal contraband is seized.” Success often lies not in what happens but in what you prevent from happening.”
The movie was directed by famous director Spike Lee. (I often get Spike Lee and Spike Jonze confused, but Lee is black and Jonze is white, among other differences). He directed movies such as, Malcom X starring Denzel Washington, Do the Right Thing, Inside Man, and 25th Hour.
In this movie, he did a good job mixing in comedic relief in with the seriousness of the topic.
John David Washington is the son of Denzel Washington. This was his first lead role and gives a great performance as Ron Stallworth.
Adam Driver plays the cop who goes undercover as “Ron Stallworth”. I first heard of Driver back in 2013 when I watched the TV show Girls. He has since been in a number of award winning movies and blockbusters. He is wonderful in this and has great chemistry with Washington.
Topher Grace portrays David Duke. When he got the role, he was told he could not tell anyone that he was playing Duke. While researching the role, he noticed how despite being a terrible person and incredibly racist, he was capable of coming off as a charming, likeable guy and Grace tried to convey that. In the book, Duke is often referred to by Stallworth as a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Laura Harrier plays Patrice, a woman who is the president of the Black Student Union and Stallworth’s love interest. I have never seen her in anything before, but she is great in this!
There are three big differences from book to film. I’ll start first with the “face” of Ron Stallworth. In the book, the fellow agent Ron gets to play him is a guy named Chuck. In the movie his name is Flip. In the movie it seems Flip had more involvement and met with the Klan fairly regularly. He was also Jewish. The movie really plays this part up, having one the Klan members-Felix, be very suspicious of Flip and want him to take a lie detector test to prove he isn’t Jewish. Adding this element helped the movie to be more suspenseful and helped us feel that Flip had more skin in the game. In the movie there is a line where he says, “I’m Jewish, but I wasn’t raised to be. It wasn’t part of my life, I never thought much about being Jewish, nobody around me was Jewish. I wasn’t going to a bunch or Bar Mitzvahs; I didn’t have a Bar Mitzvah. I was just another white kid. And now I’m in some basement denying it out loud. I never thought much about it, now I’m thinking about it all the time. About rituals and heritage. Is that passing? Well then I have been passing.”
In the movie, Felix investigates Ron, and near the end of the movie he has the whole thing figured out. However, things are taken care of before he can call Flip/Ron out on it.
In the book not too much is said about Chuck, but he wasn’t Jewish. In the book, Ron also talks about how dumb the KKK members were, at least the ones he talked to. The local chapter leader and others in the group never suspected a thing and were never suspicious of Chuck. They also have the other cop, Jimmy, go undercover as a new recruit Chuck is bringing into the Klan. So the whole Felix story was just added for more suspense.
In the movie, the President of the Black Student Union is a woman named Patrice. She and Ron start a romance, and she is also a KKK target because she is of course very outspoken about her views. During the early stages of their relationship, she suspects he is a cop, but he denies it. Later, he tells her he is an undercover agent, and she is upset that he lied, and upset that he’s a cop. In the end of the movie, she asks him about resigning, but he enjoys being a cop. The ending is ambiguous, but it sort of makes it seem like they stay together.
In the book, there is no romance talked about. When he is at the Stokely Carmichael speech, he sits next to a German woman who flirts with him, however he mentions he had started dating someone whom he knew he wanted to be with, so nothing happens with the German woman.
As far as the Black Student Union, in the book he mentions that as well as other anti-racist groups. However, he says they were all poorly organized and didn’t have the local, influential leaders who could draw a crowd.
Extra Drama/Modern Parallels
As I said, the book doesn’t have much action. The movie wanted to be more exciting, so they had Felix and some others plan a bombing when the Black Student Union gathered again. Felix’s wife ends up putting the bomb on Patrice’s car, but no one ends up being injured.
Though Felix’s wife does end up in jail. (I don’t remember if Felix gets put in jail too.)
In the book, because of their investigation they are able to stop cross burnings from taking place, but there is never a bombing. Though both movie and book have the Klan member who talks about wanting to blow a place up. Later, there is a raid or something, and explosives are found. The Klan members also have classes on tax evasion, which is also illegal.
The movie also adds in more about racist cops. There is one cop in particular that harasses Patrice and others, and in the end, they catch him in a mike saying how he could kill Ron if he wanted to, and he wouldn’t get in trouble. Because he is caught saying this, he is put in prison. When Ron is trying to arrest the woman with the bomb, cops pull up and immediately arrest Ron and don’t believe it when he says he is a cop and don’t even let him show them his badge.
The movie also ends with footage of the 2017 Neo-Nazi riots that happened in Virginia. It also shows the footage of Trump commenting on the whole thing saying, “You had a group on one side that was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. Not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists. You also had people that were fine people.” Then it has a clip of David Duke in 2017 talking positively about Donald Trump.
In both, the real Ron forms a “close friendship” with David Duke over the phone. They talk often, and the movie shows those conversations, including showing how Ron and the other cops got a kick out of it all and were laughing. In the movie, he has one last conversation with Duke, where he reveals who he really is. In real life however, Duke didn’t know the real identity of Ron Stallworth till 2006, nearly 30 years later. Stallworth said he regrets not coming forward with what happened at the time, because maybe it would have hindered Duke’s political career.
Both book and movie show how Ron was assigned to be Duke’s bodyguard while he was in town. Also, in both, Ron gets a photo with his arms around Duke and another Klansman. Duke tries to take the picture, because he can’t have a photo floating around of him looking chummy with a black man. Ron says that if he touches him, he will be arrested for assaulting a police officer. Very satisfying to see Duke put in his place like that. In the book Ron says that over the years the photo has been lost, which is such a disappointment! He still had a lot of the documents from this investigation, but that picture in particular was lost. In a more recent interview, Ron revealed that to this day, he still keeps his KKK membership card in his wallet.
Wanting Ron to be in charge
In both, we see that the local chapter leader wants Ron to be the new leader. In the book it is because the current leader is in the military and is being reassigned. In the book it is explained that this put Ron and Chuck in a tough spot because being a leader you have to make a lot of decisions, and they would get in trouble for entrapment. Entrapment is when a cop is undercover, and he convinces the criminals to do an illegal act. If they are charged for it, they can blame it on the undercover cop saying they wouldn’t have done it had he not convinced them to. As a KKK member, Chuck/Ron could remain more neutral and never make suggestions on what the Klan should or shouldn’t do. But as its leader, they expect you to decide those things. He explains it in the book saying, “It would have been quite easy for me (or Chuck) to manipulate conversations that would have guaranteed they would commit criminal acts, this allowing for their arrest and prosecution. Instead, we steered (or tried to) such conversations away from acts of conflict, which proved beneficial to our objective of intelligence gathering and still provided for the public safety and welfare.”
In the end, the local leader is really pushing Ron to take the spot, but Ron’s police captain says they can’t risk it. In both book and movie, he tells them they are ending the assignment and that he needs to get rid of all the evidence and reports. In both, he shreds something when a guy is around, but once he’s alone, he takes the other papers and leaves.
Racism in the office
When Ron is working in the records room, the movie shows an older white guy looking at a magazine with Cybil Shepard and saying how she is attractive and it kind of ends at that. In the book he talks about an older guy he worked with and the two of them would talk about various female celebrities they found attractive. Then Ron mentions an African American woman and in the book it says the guy responds with, “’I don’t know how you people define beauty in a woman.’” Ron then writes, “He said this very casually without any intended, overt malice…I was dumbfounded to say the least. This nice, elderly man had unknowingly and unintentionally slapped me in the face with his statement.”
This seems worse in some ways than someone saying something blatantly racist. If he had called this guy out on having said that, he probably would have claimed he isn’t racist, and Ron is being too sensitive or something. I’ve heard these referred to as “micro aggressions”, when someone says something so hurtful about your race, but are too ignorant and insensitive to realize how hurtful and racist the comment was.
In both, we are also shown in his cop interview how they tell him he needs to be prepared for racist comments said to him not only by civilians, but his own fellow cops. Which is crazy, because rather than punish other cops for saying racist remarks, they tell Ron he just needs to learn to turn the other cheek.
The Ku Klux Klan
The book talks a bit about the origins of the KKK, specifically why they dress up in the robes and would even put robes on their horses. After the Civil War, men from the South gathered and would dress up pretending to be ghosts to scare the former slaves. This was taken further, and they would kill African Americans and burn their homes. At this point, the KKK weren’t anti-Semitic, and there were even Jewish people that were part of the Klan.
At some point the Klan kind of disbanded. Then in 1915, D. W. Griffith released his film epic, The Birth of a Nation, which was about the Civil War and made KKK members look like heroes and was incredibly racist towards black people. The movie also had the KKK members burning crosses, which they previously hadn’t done. This film started the second era of the KKK and in the mid 20’s to the 30’s it had the highest member rate its ever had. In 1944 it once again disbanded, I’m assuming in part due to World War 2.
It started up just a couple years later though and even though it didn’t have the numbers it once did, any number of members is still too many.
David Duke became the leader of the Klan in 1976. Which by the way, they have the silliest names for the different levels within the Klan. The leader is called the Grand Wizard, guys in charge of local chapters are called Grand Dragon and there is even a level called Exalted Cyclopes. Anyway, Duke, as the book and movie say, gave the Klan a new face. He was clean cut and well dressed, he never said the N word in public (though he said it plenty when he was with other Klan members) and was more in the public eye. As the book says, “In essence, he mainstreamed the Klan, making it seem an acceptable and viable alternative for those looking for a means to express their displeasure with the status quo of their lives and government representatives.” He even ran for office, including president, multiple times and eventually won as a state representative for Louisiana.
In the book, when he talks to the local leader, Ron says he learned that “The goal was to get Klansmen elected to political offices at all levels of government throughout Colorado. If they could not find qualified Klansmen to run for office, Wilkens said, “We will also support non-Klansmen who share our philosophy. If a candidate wants our public endorsement, we’ll give it to him, or we may support him with financial aid. The important thing is to get the right kind of thinking into government.’”
As we saw in the end of the movie, the Klan is still unfortunately alive and well, as is David Duke.
Trump may not be an actual member, but he had a racist agenda. In the book, Ron says how Klan members wanted to have members going back and forth along the Mexico border to prevent immigrants getting in, and of course the wall along Mexico was a huge thing when Trump was running for office. And it was so upsetting what he said after the Virginia riots. I have gotten political on here before, but in general I dislike all politicians, but it was so ridiculous Trump ever became president and I am so glad he is no longer in office.
Book or Movie?
This one is kind of tough, because I found the movie more entertaining and intriguing, yet it doesn’t stay close to the truth of what happened. If this was based on fiction, it wouldn’t bother me that it changed some bigger elements, if making those changes made for a better story. But we all know when a movie starts with, “based on a true story” to take it with a grain of salt. Truth can be stranger than fiction, but it still needs some embellishments, nonetheless.
I guess, even with the departure from the true story, I would still pick the movie because it is more entertaining. It has amazing acting, and you just can’t go wrong with Spike Lee. Just be aware that it is merely “based” on a true story. It also was very timely when it was released, and though it is depressing seeing the racist riots that are happening today, I liked that Lee chose to make that correlation. Along with showcasing the racist cops, but while also showing that there are decent cops out there too.
Speaking of the news footage, there is a line in the book which says, “The media all too often unwittingly creates the very news it reports because of its zeal to get a story. This only benefits the person or subject being covered and gives them or it a power neither deserves.” He says this when he witnessed news reporters hanging out at an anti-Klan rally, and a Klan member walks up and asks if they want to interview a member and they say yes. He then puts on his robes and is interviewed. A person like that doesn’t deserve the publicity he’s getting but a reporter is all too eager to show it in hopes it’ll get a lot of views.
But like I said, the movie is more entertaining so I would lean towards that. The book, even though it isn’t the greatest writing, is a quick read and is interesting enough that I would still recommend it.