When Spike Lee first heard about Ron Stallworth—an African-American detective who infiltrated the Colorado Springs K.K.K. in the late 1970s—the filmmaker couldnt fathom his story being true. “I thought they were doing a Dave Chappelle skit again!” Lee has said, referring to the comedians 2003 sketch about Clayton Bigsby, the “black white supremacist.” But Stallworths extraordinary 2014 memoir confirms that the most insane events in Lees BlacKkKlansman movie did, in fact, happen; in some cases, the truth was even more outlandish than what played out on-screen.
Even as Stallworth was living this case in the late 1970s, the detective had an inkling that he might one day need concrete evidence of his K.K.K. infiltration—a story that seemed too wild to be true. As such, he brought a Polaroid camera to his face-to-face meeting with David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, and requested a group photo. Otherwise, wrote Stallworth in his memoir, “No one would ever believe that I was pulling this investigation off.”
Ahead, a rundown of Stallworths real story—as told by his memoir and a recent phone interview—and which parts of BlacKkKlansman were invented for dramatic effect.
The real Ron Stallworth: He was sworn in as a Colorado Springs police officer on his 21st birthday in 1974, making him the first African-American to graduate from the ranks of the Police Cadet Program. Stallworth was intrigued by the undercover narcotics investigators, and spent his first years peppering them with questions and pitching himself as a worthy undercover cop.
His first undercover assignment was to attend a speech given by Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael. Stallworth dressed the part—blazer, bell-bottoms, concealed weapon and wire, Afro (about an inch shorter than that of John David Washington, who plays him in the film)—and made a point of meeting Carmichael after the event. As in the film, Carmichael advised Stallworth to “arm yourself and get ready because the revolution is coming.”
To make sure that he approximated the real Stallworth as best as he could, Washington called the former detective “several times, and we exchanged text messages during the course of filming. He had a few questions here and there, which I provided,” Stallworth said. “John David captured the 25-year-old essence of me very well. Im proud to call him a Stallworth brother.”
Love interest: It turns out that the real Stallworth did meet an attractive young woman at the Carmichael event—but she was German, and Stallworth did not flirt with her for two reasons: he was on the job, and he was already dating the woman who would become his first wife. Patrice, the BlacKkKlansman character played by Laura Harrier, was invented for the movies sake.
As for whether he shared details of the investigation with his girlfriend or his family, Stallworth said this: “I didnt talk about what I was doing, for the most part.”
Establishing contact with the K.K.K.: Several months after his first special assignment, the real Stallworth became the youngest and first black undercover narcotics detective in Colorado Springs Police Department history. Part of Stallworths new job was to scan local newspapers for rumblings of suspicious activity. It was during one of these searches, in 1978, when the detective noticed a classified ad for a local Ku Klux Klan chapter. The real-life ad listed a P.O. box—not a phone number, like in the movie—so Stallworth reached out to request more information about the organization via snail mail. He provided an unlisted, untraceable phone number and an untraceable address—but he did sign the letter with his real name. He used his real name, he has explained, because he did not think the correspondence would lead to an investigation. At most, he figured he would get a pamphlet—not a phone call two weeks later.
Making his pitch: A man starting a local K.K.K. chapter called Stallworth at the untraceable number he had provided, and asked him why he was interested in joining the organization. Caught off guard, Stallworth launched a profane monologue about hating minorities that Washington, as Stallworth, recites almost word for word on-screen. The cleaned-up version, which Stallworth later offered NPR:
“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.”
The other Ron Stallworth: The K.K.K. organizer was so eager to meet in person that Stallworth had to stall—to officially launch an investigation and prepare a proxy. In the film, Stallworth recruits a Jewish character named Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to play white Ron Stallworth in all face-to-face scenarios. In real life, Stallworth recruited an undercover narcotics officer named Chuck to play him. (“He was not Jewish,” Stallworth said, adding that he has not spoken to Chuck in several years.)
Because of Chucks other undercover assignments, he was not available often—so most of Stallworths investigation was conducted over the phone. The first meetup between white Ron Stallworth and the K.K.K., as in the movie, took place outside a convenience store—where Chuck was directed to get in a car with the K.K.K. point of contact and travel to a second location, which ended up being a dive bar.
In real life, it was not just Ron and Chuck who played the role of “Ron.” On at least one occasion, neither Ron nor Chuck were available to take a call from the local K.K.K. chapter—so a different officer “played” Ron over the phone.
A few words about the K.K.K.: “The people I was dealing with were not, to use an old adage, the brightest bulbs in the socket,” wrote Stallworth in his memoir, explaining that the members of the Colorado Springs K.K.K. mostly did not pick up on Stallworths mistakes, or the fact that “Ron” spoke over the phone and in person with completely different voices.
“Only once in the entire seven months of the investigation was I ever challenged as to why my voice sounded different than Chucks,” Stallworth told Vice. “Chuck had gone to a meeting I set up, and later that day, as I thought about something that had been said at that meeting, I got on the phone and called Ken [Odell], the local organizer. I started talking to him as if Id been at the meeting, but he said, You sound different, whats the matter? I coughed a couple times and said I had a sinus infection. And he said, Oh, I get those all the time. Heres what you need to do to take care of that.”
Stallworth and his cohort had several crucial objectives when undercover: extract as much information from K.K.K. members as possible, steer clear of entrapment scenarios, and do not question the members, no matter how ridiculous their beliefs or logic are. Stallworth explained in his book, “As undercover investigators we would never have challenged Ken [the local organizer], who was—I cant stress this enough—a total idiot.”
In fact, it almost seems as though the BlacKkKlansman screenwriters upped the K.K.K. members collective I.Q. to create some narrative tension in the film. In real life, according to Stallworth, there were no members who were remotely suspicious of Stallworth— no lie-detector test, no bricks being thrown through windows, and no homemade bombs stuffed into a housewifes purse.
David Duke: Like in the movie, Stallworth did incredibly strike up a relationship with Duke by phone. And Duke did personally process Stallworths K.K.K. membership application. The two got along so surprisingly well—hate speech aside—that Stallworth even described the relationship as a “friendship, for lack of a better word,” in his memoir:
We began speaking roughly one to two times a week. I would call him to praise him. Id always call him “Mr. Duke” and say it looked like the Klan was really doing great. And then hed go on and explain all their plans, bragging and boasting and feeding me information . . . Sometimes my conversations with David Duke were light, personal discussions about his wife, Chloe, and their children. How they were doing and what was going on in their lives. He always responded with cordial enthusiasm like the proud and loving husband and father he was . . . As a matter of fact, when you took away the topic of white supremacy and K.K.K. nonsense from discourse with Duke, he was a very pleasant conversationalist.”
Stallworth also communicated with Duke on behalf of agencies who were not permitted to do so. And the detective could not help but bait the “Grand Wizard” on occasion—asking him, as his character does in the film, “if he was ever concerned about some smart-aleck nigger calling him while pretending to be white.” Duke responded by saying, “I can tell that youre white because you dont talk like a black man,” Stallworth recalled to NPR. “He said you talk like a very smart, intellectual white man, and I can tell by the way you pronounce certain words. I said, give me an example. He said, blacks tend to pronounce the word ARE, he said they pronounce it AR-RA. And he said, I could tell by listening to you that youre not black because you do not pronounce that word in that manner.”
The other officers: They listened in on conversations with the K.K.K. on occasion, until their laughter became so uncontrollable that they had to excuse themselves from the room. Wrote Stallworth, “In a darkly funny way, we actually were having fun.”
Sergeant Trapp: Stallworth had ample support in his investigation from his supervisor, Sergeant Trapp, who would occasionally listen in on Stallworths calls with Duke. Seeing Trapps character on-screen (played by Ken Garito) was an especially moving experience for the real Stallworth, he said: “It was very surreal to sit there and hear my words coming out of the mouths of the actors on the screen, to see the events that I lived re-created, to see people that I knew. One of them was Sergeant Trapp—he died in 1981 of leukemia, but I enjoyed seeing a depiction of him and hearing his name spoken. The film kind of gave him a rebirth.”
Growing investigation: Another undercover agent was eventually added to the investigation—posing as a K.K.K. member that Chuck recruited. The new recruit had one close call when, during a meetup, he signed his K.K.K. application with his real name rather than his alias. Fortunately, he was able to dispose of the application.
Stallworth also eventually joined forces with the local director of the Anti-Defamation League, to trade information on the K.K.K. and keep her apprised of his undercover efforts. As is depicted in the movie, Stallworths investigation also uncovered two K.K.K. members who were NORAD personnel with top-security-clearance-level status. Both officers were consequently reassigned. There was, however, no climactic bomb attack foiled by Stallworth; this was a fictional flourish from screenwriters Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott.
Meeting the Grand Wizard: David Dukes visit to Colorado Springs coincided with “Rons” K.K.K. induction ceremony. (In real life, the police department would not allocate funds for a K.K.K. robe, so “Ron” went without for the ceremony.) The real Stallworth was indeed assigned to be Dukes personal protection officer for the day, after death threats were made against the K.K.K. chief. Upon meeting Duke, the real Stallworth shook Dukes hand and told him that, while he did not agree with his mission or organization, he would fulfill his professional obligation to keep him alive. Even though Stallworth was not disguising his voice, Duke never realized his protection officer was the “Ron Stallworth” he had developed such a close rapport with over the phone.
And yes, Stallworth did bring a Polaroid camera and request a photo with Duke, telling him, “Mr Duke, no one will ever believe me if I tell them I was your bodyguard. Would you mind taking a picture with me?”
The photo session happened exactly as it does in the film—with Stallworths white proxy taking the photo. When the photo was about to be snapped, black Ron Stallworth wrapped an arm around Duke and another Klansman. When Duke expressed annoyance and tried to stop Stallworth from leaving with the photo, the detective reminded Duke that he could arrest him. Sadly, Stallworth has lost the Polaroid photo—yet he had his Klan certificate of membership, signed by David Duke, framed and hung on the wall in his office.
After Duke left Colorado Springs, the real Stallworth couldnt help himself from asking Duke during their next phone call whether anything surprised him about the visit. “His response very nearly brought me to tears from laughter,” wrote Stallworth. “He proceeded to tell me about his encounter with the, as he put it, “nigger cop who threatened to arrest me for assaulting him.”
End of an investigation: After a local K.K.K. organizer who was moving out of Colorado Springs suggested that Stallworth succeed him, the chief immediately shut down the investigation and instructed Stallworth to destroy all evidence of it. Wrote Stallworth, “I believe he was fearful that if word got out that CSPD officers were sworn Klansmen he would have a PR disaster on his hands.”
Over the years, Stallworth said, “I thought about writing my story [as a book], but I didnt, because I just didnt feel like it.” When he sat down decades later, the detective said matter-of-factly, “When I finally put pen to paper, I just felt like doing it.”
Seeing his story on-screen: Stallworth said that seeing his undercover experience adapted by Lee for the screen was “very surreal—almost like an out-of-body experience [that is] sometimes overwhelming.” Though he was clearly familiar with the story of his investigation, Stallworth said he was—like audiences—stunned to see the way Lee chose to close the film, by powerfully juxtaposing his 1970s-set racial drama with real-life footage from last years riots in Charlottesville, Virginia, where white supremacists and neo-Nazis protested the removal of Confederate monuments throughout the South.
“I sat riveted in my seat watching all that unfold on the screen, as did the people who were in the screening with me. We were amazed by what we saw, and we were shocked by what we saw, and we had no words to describe what we saw once it was over with. We just sat in stunned silence,” said Stallworth. Asked what he hopes audiences take away from his story, reimagined by Lee, when it arrives in theaters, Stallworth said this: “I hope they recognize that racism is alive and well, that the Klan has never gone. Its always been around, and will continue to be around, and that you shouldnt focus on just a group called the Klan. Its the whole white-supremacist movement, no matter what they call themselves—be it Klan, Nazis, alt-right, skinheads—the basic ideology is the same. They consider themselves superior to others because of their white skin, and we should not sleep on that.”
“I also would like them to take away the fact that Donald Trump is the de-facto leader of the white-supremacist movement right now, because he gives them a wink and a nod, and basically allows them to say the things that theyre saying and do the things that theyre doing, like in Charlottesville, without condemning them,” he added. “In his capacity as the Russian-planted occupier of the White House, he should be the moral conscience of this nation—but he is far from that.”
Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Full ScreenPhotos:Photos: BlacKkKlansmans Laura Harrier Breaks OutJulie MillerJulie Miller is a Senior Hollywood writer for Vanity Fairs website.