With his 1978 infiltration of the KKK now immortalised in Spike Lee’s latest film, BlacKkKlansman, Ron Stallworth talks about the resurgence of white nationalism in the US, and why it might never go away.
Stallworth’s infiltration of the KKK via telephone is the subject of Spike Lee’s latest film BlacKkKlansman.
“This whole investigation, technically, should never have happened,” Ron Stallworth tells The Adelaide Review down the line from the US. “It was so ridiculous that a black man by virtue of a phone call could gain the confidence of KKK people, especially the Grand Wizard himself David Duke, and gain their confidence and trust by simply talking to them on the phone in a light manner.”
Already receiving high critical praise, and a 10-minute standing ovation at Cannes Film Festival, BlacKkKlansman is compelling viewing, both for its stranger-than-fiction story and its relationship to the present-day resurgence of far-right politics.
“Everything Spike did on this story was done masterfully, in my opinion,” says Stallworth. “The way he connected the historical thread from the confederacy to David Duke to Charlottesville and then Donald Trump, I think was masterful.”
Stallworth’s story originally came to light in 2006, garnering media attention, a book deal, and culminating in Lee’s feature film. He says it’s a surreal experience, seeing events from his life depicted with such accuracy on screen. Surreal is an apt word considering those experiences.
Infiltrating the KKK was as easy as the film depicts it to be, says Stallworth. All he did was pick up the phone and tell the person on the other line how much he hated all kinds of minorities.
“I talked to them on the phone just like I’m talking to you,” he says. “People often ask me, ‘Did you disguise your voice to sound white?’ and I always ask them, ‘What does a white person sound like?’ … I talked the language that they talk, which is the language of hate. That’s all it took for them to confide in me and gain their confidence, by basically espousing their vile, poisonous ideology.”
One scene in the film sees Stallworth speaking with David Duke over the phone, asking him whether he ever worries that a black person might be able to infiltrate the KKK by imitating a white person. Duke, assured in his ability to discern white and black voices, tells Stallworth that he can easily tell the colour of the person he’s speaking to.
“As I say in the book, these guys were not the brightest light bulbs in the socket, and that includes David Duke, who prides himself on being very intelligent… The very fact that David Duke was telling me this on the phone and that I had subsequent conversations with him on the phone over the next several months shows how foolish naive and ignorant such statements are – that’s what racism does to people.”
BlacKkKlansman is grounded in a history of racism in the US. Opening with a monologue about the Confederacy, the film closes with footage of violent scenes from the Charlottesville riots of 2017, and President Trump’s moral equivocation over who was to blame for the violence. Thus, the film isn’t just some amusing historical anecdote about times past. It is made for the here and now, showing its audience that some dark forces might never subside, regardless of how baseless their beliefs might be.
Asked about Trump’s moral equivocation in the aftermath of the violence in Charlottesville, and whether groups like Black Lives Matter should be apportioned blame, Stallworth does not mince words.
“The people on the right are a bunch of idiots,” he says. “There is no comparison of Black Lives Matter with what was happening in Charlottesville. BLM was founded out of the shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. They were founded in order to combat the unconstitutional abuse of authority by police officers. Part of their aim is to work with the police and with the community to foster better relations, so that confrontations such as that don’t occur… They were not going around burning crosses, or carrying torches yelling, ‘Jews will not replace us,’ or anything like that… There is no equivalency, no comparison. Right wing folk who say there is are a bunch of idiots, as their leader Donald Trump is.”
Another unsettling part of BlacKkKlansman is a scene where it comes to light that some members of the KKK that Stallworth has been investigating are serving in the US armed forces, even NORAD, the government agency tasked with monitoring US/Canadian airspace for nuclear bombers. Asked whether he thinks white nationalist organisations are deliberately infiltrating government agencies, Stallworth is not so sure.
“Let’s look at it this way,” he says. “The KKK is comprised of white Americans. White Americans are serving in the military and police departments and other agencies of public safety, so it’s only fair to say that at some point some of these people will slip through the boundaries and get into those organisations. If they meet all the qualifications for the job, it’s quite easy to do.”
Considering the present state of US politics, and an apparent resurgence in white nationalist activity, does Stallworth think that things are getting worse, or that this is just a historical aberration?
“They’ve always been around,” he says. “Certain social or political events occur which bring them out from their hideout. They’ll rear their ugly heads at that time, like they did in Charlottesville, and like they’ve been doing since Trump got elected.
“People who say that the Klan doesn’t exist anymore, that they’re not a viable force, are greatly mistaken. As long as people want to go around putting sheets on their heads, burning crosses, committing acts of terrorism against minorities that they don’t like, all in the name of God and patriotism – that’s foolish thinking. You need to be vigilant on the fact that they’re there and be prepared to step up and do something about it.”
BlacKkKlansman is in cinemas from Thursday, August 16