'BlacKkKlansman' Oscars: Why the Real Ron Stallworth Wanted to "Be a Narc"
Ron Stallworth, the first black detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department, says he was never scared during his 1979 undercover investigation of the Ku Klux Klan. At age 26, Stallworth became a “member” of the hate group, working to expose Klansmen who held posts in the U.S. military, including two NORAD employees who oversaw the United States nuclear weapons program.
“I was a trained undercover investigator,” Stallworth, now 65, tells Inverse. “We don’t get scared. We just do our job.”
In 2014, Stallworth wrote and published Black Klansman, a memoir about his time as a black police officer who infiltrated a Colorado chapter of the KKK. Stallworth’s story became Spike Lee’s 2018 picture BlacKkKlansman, the auteur’s first real shot at the coveted Best Picture and Best Director awards at this Sunday’s Oscars ceremony.
"I liked everything about the movie, even the parts fabricated for plot.
In the movie, Stallwort (portrayed by actor John David Washington) seeks to prove his mettle as an undercover cop by joining a local chapter of the KKK. While Stallworth interacted with the Klan via telephone, an anonymous white narcotics officer was Stallworth’s “stand-in” for face-to-face meetings. For the film, Spike Lee invented the character Flip Zimmerman, played by Adam Driver.
The real Stallworth is fine with the embellishing.
“I liked everything about the movie, even the parts fabricated for plot,” he says. “I’m pleased how he told my story. Spike did a masterful job weaving the Confederacy to the reemergence of the Klan to David Duke, up to Charlottesville and Donald Trump making his ‘Good people on both sides’ bullshit.”
“That was part of the excitement for me, working undercover,” he says. “You’re in an unpredictable situation. You can’t plan for anything. You try to cover all contingencies but you never cover them all. You have to be quick on your feet responding to situations that go astray.”
But just what compelled Ron Stallworth, a black high school graduate in 1970s Colorado, to consider a career in law enforcement? It wasn’t much of an aspiration.
“There was no passion,” he says. It was a paycheck. And yes, it was racist. “The racism I encountered when I joined, it was very subtle.”
One scene early in the movie, where Stallworth is in a records room and is given a hard time by white officers, really did happen.
“I wanted to be a cop because it was a job to put myself through college,” says Stallworth, who intended to become a high school P.E. teacher. “After being on the job, I was having too much fun making twice as much money.”
He spent the next 32 years as a detective until his retirement in 2005.
Undercover work attracted Stallworth when an opportunity arose in the department. Stallworth’s superiors needed “a black face” to attend a speech delivered by Kwame Ture (born Stokely Carmichael), a former Black Panther member and founder of the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party (AAPR).
“I made it known to the sergeant in charge that I wanted to do undercover work. Every time I saw him I would say to him, ‘Make me a narc!’”
After three years of bugging the sergeant, Kwame Ture came to town. “They needed a black face, and they came to me. Four months after that, I was assigned to the detective division.”
Tensions between America’s black communities and law enforcement have only intensified since Stallworth’s time.
The activist movement Black Lives Matter, formed in the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal of the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2013, campaigns against violence and systemic racism including racial profiling and police brutality carried out towards black people. In 2015, The Guardian published data sourced from the 1,134 deaths carried out by law enforcement that year.
The data revealed that African American men between ages 15 and 34 made up more than 15% of all deaths at the hands of law enforcement, five times higher than white men of the same age.
So, what is it like to live and work as a black police officer?
“We, as blacks on the police force, we live in a Phantom Zone,” Stallworth says.
“We are too black for the white community and too blue for the black community,” he says. “Neither side wants to accept us, yet we have chosen to take up a profession and do right by that profession, although there are some that stray. But we generally get into it for the right reasons. We do our jobs, knowing that both sides hate us.”
Stallworth maintains that change happens by “weeding out the bad apples,” a familiar turn of phrase in the conversation of police brutality.
“It is a dynamic that existed in my time, still exists today, and yet officers who are black still become part of the profession because the only way you’re going to change is by having more good cops who will weed out the bad apples,” he says. “Police work is an honorable profession.”
One of the biggest supporters of the law enforcement community is President Donald Trump, who has endorsed police brutality and racist policies such as stop and frisk. Stallworth is no fan of the president, who appears in BlackKklansman via news footage of his speech after Charlottesville, where American neo-Nazis marched in public in the “Unite the Right” rally.
"Donald Trump did not take the opportunity to condemn it and shame on him. History will judge him.
“As far as I’m concerned, Donald Trump is the unofficial white supremacist movement in America,” Stallworth says. “He has given them license to display themselves without condemnation. Donald Trump has failed to be the moral conscience of this nation. There were no good people on both sides, there were only good people on one side. Heather Heyer got killed because of the idiocy of that march and their beliefs. Donald Trump did not take the opportunity to condemn it and shame on him. History will judge him.”