BlacKkKlansman: Adapting a True Life Story

This week we’re going to be talking about BlacKkKlansman by Spike Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott.

When I first went out to see BlacKkKlansman, my hope was that I was going to be able to do a podcast about how to write a movie for a political change— to talk about the confluence of race and politics and storytelling and history.

But, my experience of BlacKkKlansman led me to an even more important topic: the role of the truth in adapting a true life story, and how running towards (or away from) that truth can impact the overall experience of your screenplay.

Like always, in his script for BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee has a lot of very interesting things to say about race and politics, particularly about how the white supremacy movement has taken off the hood and the robe, put on the suit, and made themselves frighteningly presentable to the American public.

I think he has a scary message there that’s well told, and I think there are some really transcendent and wonderful moments in this film.

But for all the power of its message, and the appeal of its true-life premise, the actual execution of BlacKkKlansman feels shockingly uneven, bouncing between moments of political insight and compelling storytelling that we expect from Spike Lee, and others that feel predictable, anticlimatic, heavyhanded, or downright false.

What’s causing this unevenness in BlacKkKlansman is a simple problem that many writers fall into when adapting a true life story into a screenplay.

So in this podcast, I’m going to be talking about how– whether you’re writing a political film or a non-political film– you can avoid falling into some of the traps that get in the way of a really tremendous premise.

So let’s talk about BlacKkKlansman.

The premise of a black undercover police officer infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan is just about as good of a premise as you can get. And the fact that this actually happened in the 1970’s is even cooler.

The problem with BlacKkKlansman isn’t in any way its premise.

The problem with BlacKkKlansman is that the writers make the most common mistake when adapting a true life story.

Rather than running towards the truth, they instead end up running toward the same old Hollywood elements we’ve seen in a million films in this genre.

They think this is going to create drama, but instead they end up creating cliché.

If you’ve seen BlacKkKlansman, think about the moments that really stood out to you, the moments that really mattered, the moments that seemed too wild to believe but totally compelling… well, the truth is a lot of those moments were true.

And if you think about the moments that felt a little cliché, a little “seen it before,” a little familiar… well, you probably won’t be too surprised to find out that a lot of those moments weren’t true.

But there’s an even bigger consequence here.

By running towards the Hollywood story, rather than running towards the truth, BlacKkKlansman misses out on the full potential of its premise, not only structurally, but also politically.

And I’m not saying that BlacKkKlansman doesn’t have a powerful political premise at its center. I’m just saying that there’s an even more powerful way to deliver it.

So, let’s start with the biggest most “Hollywood” moment in BlacKkKlansman.

For those of you who haven’t seen the movie— Ron Stallworth is a black police officer in the 1970’s. His only dream is to become an undercover police officer. He’s the first black man to become a member of this police department, and of course he’s dealing with a lot of racism, and he’s dealing with the pressure of infiltrating both the Black Power movement and the Ku Klux Klan at the same time.

So, there’s a lot of very interesting stuff happening here, and what makes it most interesting is that this stuff is actually true.

There really was a guy named Ron Stallworth, he really was a black policeman in the 1970’s, he really did infiltrate the Black Power movement, and he really did infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan.

So, as soon as you find out that a black police officer is infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan, the first thing you’re going to think is, “how the hell did he pull that off?”

And in fact that’s exactly what draws you into BlacKkKlansman— that’s why you go see it. “Hold on, there’s a true story about a black cop who actually infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan? I want to see that movie. I want to know how he did it.”

And as soon as you hear the premise, you start telling yourself a story. Maybe it’s an unlikely story about a guy who is wearing a hood all the time so nobody knows— but you’re trying to figure out how this happened.

Unfortunately, this presents a challenge in the movie, because the way it happens, at least at first glance, isn’t all that dramatic.

What actually happened in the true story was Ron Stallworth sent a postcard to the Ku Klux Klan and they called him back at an unlisted number.

And it’s true that he developed a phone relationship with David Duke, and it’s true that the Klan wanted him to join and wanted to meet him…

So how is he going to pull this off?

In the movie, what happens a “white” cop, Flip, played by Adam Driver, poses as Ron Stallworth and goes and interacts with the Klan for him.

So the in-person conversations happen with Flip, and the on-the-phone conversations happen with Ron Stallworth— which raises the question of believability.

If he can pass for a Klansman, why doesn’t Flip just have these phone conversations and make it all a lot easier?

Many critics (who have not done their research) have pointed out this question as one of the biggest problems in the script. It just doesn’t seem credible.

But in fact it’s entirely true.

So, the first problem is, the “way things really happened” doesn’t seem credible, even though it is.

The second problem is that even if “the way things really happened” did seem credible, on first glance it isn’t that exciting.

The moment we hear the premise of BlacKkKlansman, we start imagining something really exciting: a black cop having to interact with the Ku Klux Klan.

Instead, we’re getting a white cop interacting with the Ku Klux Klan and a black cop on the phone. Which, true or not, feels like a bait and switch based on what we imagined we were going to see when we bought our tickets.

When writing a true life story, this is a danger that all writers face: sometimes the truth doesn’t seem inherently dramatic.

And this leads to a panicked desire to forget about the truth and start making things up.

That’s usually the wrong decision.

Now don’t get me wrong. The writers of BlacKkKlansman are not bad writers.

A really bad writer would make an even more problematic decision than these writers made.

A really bad writer would send the black cop in to meet the Ku Klux Klan, get rid of the white cop entirely, and run towards the drama…

But pretty soon that really bad writer would find themselves with a much bigger problem than the inconvenient truth of who actually met with the Ku Klux Klan.

They’d soon start to realize, having built everything on fiction, that each following choice they make is going to open a Pandora’s box of new credibility issues— because eventually both the writer and the audience are going to realize the same thing the real Ron Stallworth had to realize: there’s no way this guy could pull this off! That the premise just doesn’t work

If you run away from the truth when adapting a true life story, you will find your script is floating completely in a fictional world and not in the real world at all.

And you’re going to lose your audience and you’re going to lose your character and you’re going to lose your instincts that guide you through the writing process.

What a great writer would do is ask themselves a different question:

“How do I make the fact that Ron Stallworth isn’t meeting the Klan the coolest thing in the movie? How do I make the fact that what the audience expected isn’t what the audience is going to get the coolest thing in the film?”

And the way you find that answer is by running towards the truth, rather than away from it.

Unfortunately, that’s not what these writers do either.

What these writers try to do is to run a middle road–

“Let’s make the white cop Jewish, let’s create a lie detector test, let’s create a lot of suspicion among his new white supremacist “friends” that maybe he isn’t really an aspiring Ku Klux Klan member, let’s try to build some danger.”

But none of this is true, or at least none of this is confirmed.

The identity of the actual white cop is unknown, it is still classified, so no one knows if he’s Jewish or not.

But Ron Stallworth has been clear in interviews that no, none of these Ku Klux Klan members were especially smart and none of these Ku Klux Klan members had any suspicion whatsoever that this undercover white cop was anything but a wholehearted Ku Klux Klan member.

Rather than running towards what’s really cool and what’s really true about this story, the writers have immediately gone to the easiest solution, the one you’d most expect. “Well since there’s no way a black cop could physically infiltrate the Klan, what if it were a Jewish cop… yeah, that’s a lot easier… and what if there was a member that was onto him… yeah, that would create some drama”

Unfortunately, what’s easier for you as a writer is rarely better for the story.

I think we can all agree, the premise of a Jewish cop who might get recognized as Jewish is fine… but it’s a lot less exciting than the premise we paid to see– of a black guy doing the same thing.

What we’re served is a lesser version of the same story.

More importantly, we’re served it in a way that belies credibility; we don’t actually understand why this is necessary. And this breaks our suspension of disbelief, no matter how big the supertitles telling us “this is some fo’ real fo’ real shit” may be.

A part of our minds can’t help but asking, “true or not, why is this all necessary? If he’s so good at infiltrating in person, why can’t the white cop just pick up the damn phone?”

The shame of this is, in the true life story, there’s a darn good reason. It’s just left out of the adaptation completely.

Here’s the truth. When he sent that postcard to the Ku Klux Klan, Ron Stallworth had no idea that this was ever going to lead to a real investigation. In fact, as in the movie, he had signed his real name for real to that postcard because he never even expected a call.

And once they wanted to meet with him he didn’t know how to deal with it, because there actually were no resources in the police department who were prepared for this. So when suddenly the Ku Klux Klan wanted to meet, he begged a favor from an undercover cop from the narcotics division to have the meeting. And then, when the Klan wanted to keep on meeting, he had to keep going back to that guy and begging him for one more favor.

The problem was that the undercover narcotics cop had his own investigation going for that unit, and so he didn’t actually have time to do this consistently, he didn’t actually have time to answer the phone. He didn’t even really have time to show up every time the Klan wanted to meet.

To make it even more interesting, Ron Stallworth also had his own investigations going, so oftentimes he didn’t have time to answer the phone either!

In fact by the end of the investigation, there were multiple cops having multiple conversations with the same person: there were all these different people all playing the role of Ron Stallworth.

And that isn’t only more dramatic, that’s also a hell of a lot more interesting!

Because if you think about what that says about the problems of our system, how all the things we have to do, and the way we set our priorities have distracted us from the biggest problems in our society, well that’s something pretty important to say in a film.

And if you think about what it would do dramatically for the film to watch Ron actually deal with the problem of everyone in the department, including himself, having other priorities, you can see how this would serve his journey.

And if you think about what this would do structurally for the film, by putting Ron Stallworth in the impossible predicament of having to replace himself with a white cop in person, and then with another white cop, and another white cop, and another white cop on the phone… each time knowing it’s all going to fall apart, and each time having them perfectly well accepted by the Klan…

You’ll see that it not only would make the movie more compelling to watch, but also shine an even brighter light on the theme of the film that Spike Lee is working so hard to communicate– how racism can literally blind us from how similar we all actually are.

And also how easy it is, in our current political climate, to get fooled by what we see–

This is a film about how the Ku Klux Klan took off the hood and put on the suit, put away the cross, and took up the campaign trail.

But it’s also a film about how easy such an infiltration actually is to accomplish, whether it’s hate groups infiltrating our political system, or a bunch of cops infiltrating the Klan, how parroting the right words and carrying the right endorsements can play on our prejudices, and make it impossible to see what is right in front of us. How we can’t distinguish our friends from our enemies and our enemies from our friends because we can’t really see each other, because we’re only seeing what’s on the outside.

It’s not that the writers of BlacKkKlansman ran away from this truth– it’s just that they failed to run towards it– failed to fully dramatize it, and instead used those precious pages to present all the familiar stuff that Hollywood says you’re supposed to do in a movie. Instead of finding the “what’s cool” about what actually happened and what that says about the world and dramatizing it in the script, the writers found the Hollywood solution.

And by doing so, they both undercut the actual theme, and also undercut the believability of their own premise; they served up a lesser version of a great idea.

So that’s the first big departure from the truth. But unfortunately there’s a lot more.

Number two: the real Ron Stallworth has basically said about his experience with David Duke on the phone “if you took away all the racism he was a pretty good conversationalist.” In fact, over the course of this investigation, the two of them actually formed a kind of a friendship on the phone.

Now that isn’t where the movie builds to, the movie builds to the moment where Ron Stallworth finally tells off David Duke. But that isn’t what’s exciting about the story, and it’s not what actually happened (although it is true that Ron had a few laughs at David Duke’s expense). What’s exciting about the story is that if we just could free ourselves of our prejudices what that means is that who we might actually be able to connect with.

If you want to find the other places that BlacKkKlansman runs away from the truth in adapting the true life story, all you have to do is look for the cliches.

The weird stuff. The stuff that seems hard to believe, but was just so compelling and specific that you couldn’t stop watching it. That stuff was true.

The familiar stuff, no big surprise… that stuff was false.

So here’s the next cliché. Ron Stallworth is going to infiltrate the Black Power movement. So as soon as he shows up, of course he meets a super hot activist leader.

So we already know he is going to fall in love with this young hot activist who doesn’t know that he’s undercover.

You see it happening from the moment they meet– you’re already predicting it. And you’re aren’t moved by it. In fact, you don’t even fully believe it. And you aren’t even really rooting for the two of them to be together, because all she’s doing is waxing poetic about politics, and all he’s doing is telling her a big ol’ lie.

And of course, none of this is true.

What actually happened was he did connect with a leader of this movement but she was German and what did actually happen was he was in a committed relationship at the time. So, the love story that this movie is built around is fake, it’s as fake as it actually feels.

Wouldn’t it be more interesting to actually look at what Ron Stallworth’s real relationship was like? Wouldn’t it be more interesting to look at the roles he has to play as he infiltrates his own people and as he infiltrates the people who hate his people?

Wouldn’t it be interesting to watch what happens as he develops a friendship rather than the predictable love relationship? And wouldn’t it be interesting to look at the roles he has to play with the woman he’s in love with–is she the one person he can be real with or is he undercover with her too?

As screenwriters we want to run towards the truth.

Bad screenwriters, bad producers always say the same thing “the truth sucks, you’ve got to make it up.”

But these writers and these producers simply lack the confidence in themselves, the confidence that their story matters and that if they’re attracted to it, it matters for a reason.

That doesn’t mean that you’re stuck with every detail of the literal truth, but you at least want to run towards that truth. It doesn’t mean that you can’t use fiction to present the truth in a specific, cool, hyper focused way.

It doesn’t even mean that you can’t exaggerate the truth. It doesn’t meant that you can’t externalize the internal, or come up with great lines of dialogue, or create dramatic scenes inspired by the truth that look on the outside what it feels like on the inside.

It doesn’t mean that you can’t compress characters, or turn up the volume on the real threat, or use the power of storytelling to bring focus to the structure of your character’s journey.

But you want all of those elements in your adaptation to grow organically out of the truth, not to be inspired by some crap you saw in other Hollywood movies, or read in a screenwriting book.

If you are using fiction, you want that fiction to grow out of the truth, to be a metaphor for the truth.

You don’t want to build a bullshit cliché storyline that we’ve seen before when right in front of you is a fascinating story line that we’ve never seen before.

Which brings me to the biggest place that BlacKkKlansman departs from the truth… and just a note, if you haven’t already predicted them… there are some spoilers ahead.

The biggest place that BlacKkKlansman departs from the truth is the big showdown at the end when the cliché love interest gets caught up in the cliché bomb threat and the cliché hero has to save her from the cliché Ku Klux Klan bad guys.

And of course this is completely untrue.

There was no bomb threat, there was no final action sequence.

But, what happened in the true life story was a whole lot more interesting, and a whole lot more in line with Spike Lee’s actual premise.

The plan that Ron Stallworth had to stop was a plan for the Ku Klux Klan to infiltrate high ranking military positions.

The plan that he had to stop wasn’t a plan to blow up a building, it wasn’t about the stuff that happens “under the hood.”

The plan that he had to stop was about the very problem that Spike Lee is trying to illuminate— the problem of what happens when the Ku Klux Klan, when white supremacy, takes off the hood and puts on a military uniform. What happens when the Ku Klux Klan takes off the hood and puts on a business suit? What happens when the Ku Klux Klan takes off the hood and steps into the leadership of the United States?

And in fact it was Ron Stallworth who got four military officials kicked out of the military after this investigation; this investigation was a success.

But while those military officials do appear in the film, the way they’re presented But the way it’s portrayed in the film is backwards– as sympathetic  with the military officials helping with the bombing, rather than as the “bombs” themselves. threat, where what happened in real life was an infiltration into the military in order to put a presentable look, a respectable look, on the unacceptable.

What’s really interesting about what actually happened was that the Ku Klux Klan that he investigated wasn’t arming themselves, the Ku Klux Klan that he investigated was hiding their guns and hiding their crosses and finding their way into mainstream society.

And what’s really interesting thematically was that the Black Power movement that he infiltrated was at a similar turning point. That in fact, just as we see in the movie, the speaker that he went to listen to while wearing a wire did shake his hand and tell him to arm himself.

So, what’s really interesting is that the main character finds himself in a place where both the civil rights movement and the white supremacy movement are questioning the role of violence in accomplishing their goals, and the main character is caught in the crossroads between the two.

And the completion of the film, if we look at where we actually are as a society, we do have president who is “nudge, nudge, wink, winking” at white supremacy, and we do have a civil rights movement in crisis, with America fracturing between left and right, with neither side actually able to see the other.

The premise of BlacKkKlansman is about as good of a premise as you can have for a movie, and the true story of BlacKkKlansman is about as good of a true story as you can have in a movie.

And if you’ve watched BlacKkKlansman and you want to know what’s true, pretty much everything else, all the most exciting stuff in that movie, all the stuff you actually connected to, all the stuff that you haven’t seen before that’s the stuff that’s true.

That picture that Ron Stallworth takes with David Duke, that stuff is true. The fact that Ron Stallworth ends up guarding David Duke, that stuff is true. The fact that David Duke’s visit coincided with the fake Ron Stallworth’s induction to the Ku Klux Klan, that stuff is true.

In fact, the police department was so cheap and saw this as such a low priority that they wouldn’t pay for a Ku Klux Klan robe so the white cop playing Ron Stallworth had to show up for his own induction without one—the stuff in the movie that’s fascinating is true; the stuff in the movie that’s boring is fake.

So what does this mean for you?

In your own writing these fears that the truth sucks, these fears that your truth isn’t good enough, are going to come up all the time.

These fears that if you run toward what really happened, it isn’t going to be “Hollywood,” it isn’t going to be exciting, people aren’t going to buy it… these fears are going to come up for you.

And it is true that as writers we have to use art and craft to overcome the challenges of true stories.

Because the truth in many stories happens internally. And in movies our job is to externalize the internal, to find ways to dramatize the truth: not the literal truth but the emotional truth, the structural truth of what’s happening inside the character.

But before you make something up, I want to make sure you run towards the truth.

And if you’re writing something that you’ve seen before, you can be pretty sure that what you’re saying isn’t true.

This is the cool thing about movies, and the cool thing about human beings, and the cool thing about the world—everything in the world is weird, everything in the world is just as weird as a black cop infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan–nothing plays out the way you’re expecting it.

And what that means is that if you’re seeing stuff that’s normal, if you’re seeing stuff that you’ve seen before, if you’re stereotyping, just like the characters in this film, you’re simply not looking closely enough.

Because if you simply look close enough and find the thing that’s surprising to you, suddenly the truth comes out, suddenly this thing that you’ve seen before becomes something fresh and new.

So, I want to end with one last idea from BlacKkKlansman.

I want to show you how you can do this even if you’re stuck in a structure that’s cliché, even if your producer insists on the cliché thing happening, even if you’ve got a monologue that you’ve seen before, an image that you’ve seen in another movie.

Even if you’re stuck with something that isn’t entirely true, you can find the truth underneath it and find a way to externalize that truth and bring it to the surface in your adaptation.

What we’re going to talk about now is the very first monologue in BlacKkKlansman.

We start off with a big set piece scene and then we cut to Alec Baldwin, playing a white supremacist making an “informative” film about white supremacy.

He is giving an impassioned monologue that, quite frankly, we’ve heard before. And it’s disgusting and it’s racist and it’s everything disturbing that you could ever imagine a guy like this saying. And it’s a wonderful setting because it’s happening as like an instructional video, the kind that you might remember from grade school.

But the words that he’s saying… we’ve heard them before. We’ve heard this kind of monologue in other movies.

Sometimes in our writing and sometimes in our performances and sometimes working with producers and directors, we do get stuck with those cliché moments.

Sometimes we’re looking for that thing we haven’t seen before and we simply can’t find it.

And that doesn’t mean you’ve to throw everything away. It just means you have to look a little closer, just run a little more closely towards the truth.

This is what Alec Baldwin does in his performance. (I don’t have the script, so I don’t know if this is scripted or if this is something a great actor brought in the performance).

But it doesn’t really matter.

Because what this writer (or what this actor) does is look at this cliché monologue and find the truth underneath it, find the specificity underneath it.  

If you watch Alec Baldwin’s performance what’s so fun about it is how he keeps on mispronouncing lines, clearing his throat, trying it again, doing another take, saying it in a different way.

The monologue becomes not about the cliché words that we’ve heard before, but about the personality of this guy who’s trying to get it right. It becomes about the ego of this man who wants to be perceived a certain way, a man who needs to have power at every moment, and who’s trying to find just the right words to make his unacceptable beliefs acceptable.

And his throat clearings and repeated lines and new line readings actually make this monologue that would’ve gone flat more disturbing than all the versions of it we’ve heard in the past.

Running towards the truth doesn’t mean throwing out everything, it means looking more closely at what you have.

Running towards the truth doesn’t mean rejecting the thing your producer is demanding, it means trying to use the stuff that really happened and build from there.

Running towards the truth doesn’t mean not using fiction, it means allowing the fiction that you write to grow out of the truth of what actually happened.

And sometimes running towards the truth means simply looking at each line each moment and finding a little bit of specificity underneath.

So I hope that when you’re writing your own screenplays– whether you’re adapting a true life story, a novel, a memoir, a dream or a memory into screenplay form– I hope that even when writing fiction, you will always run towards the truth.



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