For the past month in New York, posters of Denzel Washington in dramatic dead-on cut-up, advertising his role in The Equalizer 2 (tagline: “There is no equal”) have been sharing space with another Washington: younger, with a prominent afro and in front of an upside-down American flag. Like his father, John David Washington (“J.D.”) is now the star of a summer wide-release feature: Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, which tells the story of a police officer named Ron Stallworth who infiltrates a sect of the Ku Klux Klan in the late ‘70s. In addition to introducing mass audiences to the younger Washington, it is being called Lee’s best movie in at least a decade-plus and is Lee’s first wide release since his 2013 Oldboy remake.
Like other sons of widely-recognizable leading men (Wyatt Russell’s career comes to mind), the younger Washington spent a decade in professional sports, as a free agent for the Rams (then in St. Louis) and then as a running back for the UFL’s Sacramento Mountain Lions and NFL Europe. A string of accumulated injuries convinced him to use the collapse of the UFL to turn to acting, where he slipped comfortably into the HBO football drama Ballers, now about to start its fourth season. “A lot of NFL guys are misunderstood,” he told Men’s Journal about the appeal of playing a football player on screen. An interest in personifying similarly misunderstood figures is also evident in the choice of some of his first major roles. In BlacKkKlansman, Lee’s Ron Stallworth develops a romantic relationship with a leader of the Colorado College Black Student Union, who he initially meets while spying on the group as a cop. In Reinaldo Marcus Green’s Monsters and Men, which played at Sundance this year and will see release in September, Washington stars as a present-day undercover police officer torn between the sense of duty that drove him to his job and the resentment he feels at his treatment as a second-class citizen at the hands of that same police force. In a way, these roles draw from the natural charisma that his father brought to broadly affable leading men but direct them into characters that question the system they are organized to protect.
On the press junket for BlacKkKlansman, Washington talked frankly about the time he spent riding along with Brooklyn police force last year and about how dealing with the Klan in the ’70s feels as present as ever. He says: “It’s a period piece but it also feels super contemporary, those Klansman could have been today. This could have been anytime.”
Edited conversation below.
FSR: You play a police officer in two movies coming out soon. BlacKkKlansman this month and [Reinaldo Marcus Green’s] Monsters and Men the next. What drove you to these roles?
The stories felt personal to both Spike and Marcus Green and I was attracted to that and then the scripts… I had the chance to give the perspective of an African-American on the police force and that’s not really common knowledge. We don’t really hear what they go through. It’s a thankless job, serving your community.
And there are people who are doing it the right way and who are caught up in this [conversation about] Are you woke, are you for black or are you for blue? It was something that I was ignorant to, as well, until I did my research and got to meet some of these people. I was with Brooklyn North, the police department, and I did ridealongs with them for about a month. It was hard to sleep that month with the things I was seeing.
What kind of things did you see?
The first day on the job, I had to put a vest on and we went from playing basketball with some kids—they got a call and we rode out to the Marcy projects and this dude was bleeding out, he had just been shot. We just had missed the shooter, if we were there a minute earlier, we would have got him and here was this dude bleeding out, almost to death. Luckily, his life was saved. But that was just my first day.
What struck me was how calm everyone was. In the movies, everyone is like: Get out of there, move! But everyone was calm, even the man who was bleeding out was calm. The police officers I was with were calm, all due diligence. Broken glass, gunshots, stuff you see on CSI, this was crazy. This was my first day and it’s crazy that this is every day for them. I had watched COPS before and watched YouTube interviews and all that but it’s nothing like getting up close and personal with how much of a thankless job it was. Seeing how people were looking at me when I put the jacket on, how they were looking at me with such judgment. And they were hating me. And this was directed at people who were trying to protect them. And these scripts really gave me the opportunity to do that and to provide examples of people doing their job the right way and who truly believe in this country and the system.
Have you talked a lot with Ron Stallworth?
He was at the first table read. He even passed around his KKK membership card. We got to talk a lot then and after that, every week, we were talking. We talked a lot about how to be a police officer but we also got underneath the surface of all that too, what motivated him and what it was like being a black man in the ’70s in Colorado Springs, an idea of his family, his upbringing, why he believed what he did. The struggles he had to endure—a lot of stuff I really can’t share but it all helped me become the truthful Ron Stallworth on screen.
Your father also played a cop in his last Spike Lee movie, 2006’s Inside Man. Did it feel different to play one today?
I think the cops that I’ve gotten to play are different and more timely. Especially, in Monsters and Men, we really had a chance to talk about the issues of what-side-are-you-on and I don’t know if that’s been done to the same extent, and same thing with [BlacKkKlansman]. It’s a period piece but it also feels super contemporary—those Klansman could have been today. This could have been anytime.
How did you approach getting into the era?
I had the chance to talk with Allen Hughes about it, who is a mentor to me, and he gave me a whole bunch of information about what it was like in the ’70s and especially doing a movie set in the ’70s, Dead Presidents and all that…and also my uncle John McClain, who runs Marvin Gaye’s old studio. My way into the decade was really the music. I went to bed to Soul Train every night. Super Fly is actually my favorite movie of all time, so it was a fun way in. I also watched a whole bunch of documentaries, like The Black Power Mixtape and you know those CNN series on the ‘60s and ‘70s?
A lot of the information was in the book [Ron Stallworth’s memoir, Black Klansman], but I wanted to know what about me, what would I have been then? I wanted to be able to have both the backstory and an alternate backstory that is my own and then to combine the two.
Did it change how you felt about the era?
I feel like, after Vietnam, people were just over it. And I didn’t realize how devastating that was, that whole experience. In a crazy way, I appreciated how organized people seemed to be—whether it was for hate or love, they were doing it together. That I appreciate. Which is connected to what people do today, how people are now showing their resistance through hashtags and taking a knee, though it’s unfortunate that they are hashtagging and taking a knee for the same issues.
I read you trained with Colin Kaepernick.
Yeah when I got hurt, he was there. I was in the same training group that he was in but this was before all of that.
What do you think of how he was treated by the NFL?
He’s a brave man and he might not ever play again and I appreciate the peaceful approach he took to get his point across. And, I wasn’t sure about it at first, I thought maybe he was being a little disrespectful until I got to hear him talk about it and he explained and now, I’m woke.
Do you ever see yourself doing a passion project like your father did with Fences?
I’ve got to earn that. I have to keep making films, getting better in my craft and the way to do that is to work with people who know what they’re doing and who can help me. When I earn that, I will do it.