When John David Washington talked to director Spike Lee about portraying a black Seventies-era policeman who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado, the actor thought something didn’t smell right.
‘I was like: ‘Is this a crazy Spike Lee joint?’ Washington told me, when we talked about the unbelievably cool picture BlacKkKlansman which was a hit at the Cannes Film Festival (it won the festival’s Grand Prix honour) and which opens here on August 24.
The actor, 34 tomorrow, made his screen debut playing a schoolboy in Lee’s 1992 film Malcolm X.
But he was surprised when, 26 years later, the film-maker contacted him out of the blue. ‘I got this text: ‘Yo, it’s Spike. Call me.’
Lee proceeded to tell Washington, a former American football player, the story of Ron Stallworth, an undercover officer with Colorado Springs Police Department who, in 1979, set about infiltrating the local chapter of the white supremacist group.
‘I said to Spike: ‘This is crazy!’ But it’s all there in black and white in Stallworth’s memoir.
After spotting an advertisement for new Klansmen in a local newspaper, he came up with a plan.
One that required him to change his vocal delivery and speak as though he was Caucasian.
‘Once I read the book, I admired the man, and felt he was extremely brave,’ Washington said.
‘When I later spoke with Ron Stallworth, he brushed that kind of talk aside and said he’d received a lot of help. He just felt he was doing his job.’
Now you’re all thinking: how could a black man con his way into the KKK?
Stallworth did the talking over the telephone, to hide his identity, and a white fellow officer — played in the film by Adam Driver — went to the meetings, pretending to be him.
Lee has taken that tale and fashioned it into one of the year’s best films. It resonates powerfully in the era of Trump, a president who has seemingly aligned himself with the far-Right in the United States.
As much as BlacKkKlansman reflects current events, though, it’s still rooted in the Seventies, and Washington duly got into the spirit of the times.
‘The hair and the beard and the beads . . . we were cool, and fully absorbed in the era,’ he said.
He also watched old footage from Soul Train. ‘I stopped listening to my rap and got into the music of the period.’
Story and music blend seamlessly in one extraordinary scene in which Stallworth moves on his infiltration plan while also courting a civil rights leader, played by Laura Harrier.
It all goes down to the sound of Too Late To Turn Back Now, a 1972 soul hit by Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose.
Washington praised Lee for being brave enough to cast him. He’d worked, successfully, on the TV series Ballers but was still, relatively speaking, a newbie.
‘We’d been shooting for four days and I was anxious about how I was doing. Spike comes over and says: ‘Put some bass in your voice.’ That was it. He’s a genius, because then I knew what I had to do.’
You’ve probably worked out that John David Washington is the son of Denzel Washington and his actress wife, Pauletta.
‘I wanted to be an actor my entire life,’ John David said. ‘But I wanted to do it on my own, so I started right at the bottom.
‘I earned those roles on the TV. I didn’t want my parents to open any doors. I’m as happy as can be that I went out and worked, that I’ve faced rejection.
‘I’m proud of what my parents have attained in this business, but I wanted to do this my way.’
I predict we’ll be seeing a lot more of Mr John David Washington.
Tom Cruise has been lauded for the astonishing athletic stunts he pulls off in the grade-A popcorn thriller Mission: Impossible —Fallout, which also stars Henry Cavill, Rebecca Ferguson, Vanessa Kirby (super lethal as the White Widow), Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg.
However, athletic as he is, Cruise is 56, and all the chatter about a possible MI7 is causing concern because he isn’t available for two or three years — and will he want to be leaping off rooftops at 60?
In the meantime, see an IMAX version of the current Mission: Impossible if you can. It looks terrific on a giant screen.