In 2018, art and politics are more intertwined than ever, so for actor John David Washington, portraying a black police officer on-screen was a tricky task. In BlacKkKlansman, Washington plays Ron Stallworth, the first African American cop in Colorado Springs who led an undercover operation into the Klu Klux Klan in the '70s. Despite the difficulty, it was an opportunity the young actor jumped at. "It was very important for me, and a heck of an opportunity, one that I really craved," he tells Bustle over the phone. "I was so excited... to broadcast that to the masses what it's like to be an African American police officer."
Before taking on the role, Washington didn't know much about what it's like to be a black police officer now — let alone in the late '70s. "Once, I was ignorant to the experience of the African American cop," Washington admits. "I didn't know much about it." To prepare for BlacKkKlansman (out Aug. 10) as well as a role in the upcoming film The Old Man & The Gun in which he plays a lieutenant, the actor did a lot of research about what it's like to be an officer of color — including speaking to the real Ron Stallworth — and it opened his eyes to their perspective.
"I wanted to make sure that the men and women serving as a minority can stand up and be proud, and know that they're represented too," Washington says. In BlacKkKlansman, Stallworth wrestles with being a black man in an often racist law enforcement, a struggle that the actor kept in mind while filming. "We shouldn't have to make them choose," he says now. "They can be down for their people. You can be a man or woman of your community and still serve on the law."
Of course, playing a fictional police officer and playing a very real one are two very different things. To prepare for the role, Washington immersed himself in the late '70s culture, watching documentaries, movies, and listening to popular music of the times. It wasn't until months after he booked the role that director Spike Lee gave him with Stallworth's phone number so that they could finally talk. "I wanted to inhabit his spirit and all the emotions that went into what it was like being the first African American cop in Colorado Springs," Washington explains. "Not what it means to me or us, but what it meant to him."
For the actor, who had never before carried a film of this magnitude on his shoulders, channeling Stallworth's goal-oriented and focused nature helped take some of the pressure off. "That kind of spearheaded my mantra where I didn't think about the impact this film was gonna have or this is crazy, 'cause he didn't," he says.
Now that BlacKkKlansman is hitting theaters, the impact of the film is becoming harder to avoid. The movie is Lee's most talked about in over a decade, winning the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. And as many reviews have noted, its exploration of the white nationalist movement couldn't be more timely. In the film, KKK leader David Duke (Topher Grace) uses some of President Trump's favorite catchphrases, including "America First" and "Make America Great Again." The film is a modern commentary on race in America told through the lens of a period piece, an approach that Lee has mastered in the past with movies like Do The Right Thing and Malcolm X.
Yet while BlacKkKlansman will certainly have a massive cultural impact, it will also no doubt affect the life of its star. Washington who has made an effort to carve his own path outside of being "Denzel Washington's son," is, in many ways, following in his father's footsteps. Denzel famously earned his first Best Lead Actor Oscar nomination for Lee's Malcolm X, and as the actor's son notes, Lee could be changing his career in a similar fashion. "I feel like I'm part of the Spike Lee family," Washington says. "He's responsible for a huge reason why my father is who he is. Because Spike Lee gave him the platform to express his whole other side, you know? Same with me."
Just as his father got to do with Malcom X, Washington gets to put all of his talents on display in BlacKkKlansman, while addressing important social problems and working with a living legend. "A lot of people didn't know what I could do [but now are] able to see it through this film because of Spike Lee, because he gave me the freedom to do so, to explore that," he says. When you put it that way, it's really not a bad family legacy to carry on.