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John David Washington scores with back-to-back films about the insidious nature of racism

John David Washington scores with back-to-back films about the insidious nature of racism
Actor John David Washington had both "Monsters and Men" and "BlacKkKlansman" in theaters this fall. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

It has been a whirlwind couple of years for John David Washington.

The 34-year-old star of HBO’s “Ballers” saw his feature-film debut (not counting a cameo 25 years earlier alongside his father, Denzel, in Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X”) in “Love Beats Rhymes,” directed by hip-hop superstar RZA. Then, in a burst up the middle, he made four more movies, including playing leads in the indie “Monsters and Men” and Lee’s widely acclaimed “BlacKkKlansman.”

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“I feel like this particular story couldn’t be told by anyone but Spike,” says Washington of the bizarre true tale of black police detective Ron Stallworth, who pretended he was white in phone calls to befriend Colorado Springs members of the Ku Klux Klan in a late-’70s intelligence operation. He eventually struck up a phone “friendship” with Klan leader David Duke himself. Washington says, “Even if you didn’t like the film, you had to feel something. Because this is our backyard. This is a true story.”

Despite his Hollywood royalty lineage, the gregarious actor’s path to this moment was hardly a straight line. His first vocation was football. He was a star running back at Morehouse College, where he set numerous rushing records. He played pro ball, including an NFL stint, until 2012. He says, without hesitation, he doesn’t miss it.

“I love what it gave me – an understanding of teamwork and the magic of what you try to plan for but can’t expect in the turbulent and trying situations of a game. What you’re made of when you go through adversity.”

Still, he can’t help but use football analogies in conversation, as when he talks about playing a real person.

“Spike kept saying that ‘Ron Stallworth is not the Bible,’ ” he says. “A wise man told me, ‘Don’t get it right; get it true.’ [Veteran actor] Stephen Henderson told me that. Use your instincts with a combination of what you got from this man, from your research, and you will find the ingredients that will service this film.

“I was trying to get accurate-accurate, trying to get all the facts I can, then have to try to lose it on game day.”

Laura Harrier stars as Patrice and John David Washington as Ron Stallworth in Spike Lee's "BlacKkKlansman."
Laura Harrier stars as Patrice and John David Washington as Ron Stallworth in Spike Lee's "BlacKkKlansman." (David Lee / Focus Features)

Before “BlacKkKlansman,” Washington read writer-director Reinaldo Marcus Green’s “Monsters and Men,” examining the aftermath of an unjustified police killing from three different perspectives. He didn’t want to get his hopes up about landing the part of an African American cop caught between colleagues and community, but was delighted to take part in the developmental process at the Sundance Institute.

“Sundance Labs was like going to the Dagobah System and becoming a Jedi,” he says. “You act a little bit, you hike, you act a little more, then you don’t act for a day, you just talk. Mr. Ed Harris, Octavia Spencer were the counselors. You’re walking the grounds and she’s like, ‘How do you feel?’ ‘Well, Octavia …’

“It was more like a summer camp to find your true artist, than an audition. We bonded from that and Reinaldo fought for me.”

“Monsters and Men” was well reviewed and Washington’s work praised, but the movie grossed only half a million dollars. He ruefully says, “About eight people saw it.

“I’m so proud of what [Green] did. It felt like a living organism. It’s a triptych, and some people didn’t like that there wasn’t finality to the stories. But the point is it’s an ongoing discussion. And if you paid attention, you got to find out some points of view you were unaware of.”

Then he was texted by Lee, a friend of his father’s whom he knew in passing, and found himself immersed in Stallworth’s too-insane-to-be-true story.

“David Duke … they still have a relationship. The real David Duke called the real Ron Stallworth four days before the film came out; said one of his favorite films was ‘Malcolm X.’ Like, it’s crazy.”

He says Lee is “a master of cinematic tone. If we’d played this too on-the-nose, too gimmicky, we’d have missed a huge opportunity to express some truth about this country and how people talk behind closed doors. How they really think.”

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Washington’s performance weaves between the very real danger and the mischievousness behind the ruse. He says that though Stallworth told him he had fun with those phone calls at the time, what really sank in for the actor was “how instituted hate is, how it’s taught. The resurgences of the Klan. There’s nothing comedic about that.”

He comes back to objections some may have had with Green’s or Lee’s bold artistic choices.

“Rei and Spike aren’t trying to change every mind. I’m trying to change one. If I can get one person to make that change, to bridge the gap of cultures, that’s successful to me.

“At least cinema gives us a chance, like a football stadium, a football game, if you will, to cheer or triumph or even suffer together. We’re all enjoying the same moments and experiencing great sorrow together, no matter what color you are.”

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