When actor John David Washington thinks back to the first Spike Lee film set he ever worked on, the BlacKkKlansman star says his direction was pretty simple. “With Malcolm X, he kept telling me to call him Uncle Spike because I was really hyped up,” says the 34-year-old actor over the phone.
He was somewhere in the vicinity of 8 years of age when Lee began shooting Malcolm X in 1991, starring Washington’s dad in the titular role: Denzel Washington. The younger Washington says his mother brought him on set to appear in a scene featuring other young black children standing up to declare, “I am Malcolm X!”
“I was super excited,” says Washington, “and he was, ‘Listen to Uncle Spike. Say the line and sit down. You stand up, say the line and sit down. Listen to Uncle Spike.’ I guess I was over excited to be a part of it. I was really pumped up, especially being my first role.”
His role in BlacKkKlansman is no less powerful though a bit more sophisticated. In the new Spike Lee Joint, the younger Washington steps into the shoes another real life figure, detective Ron Stallworth. He was the first African-American officer on the Colorado Springs Police Department in Colorado. It wasn’t until 2014 that he revealed in his book The Black Klansman, that back in 1979, one of his first jobs as an undercover officer was to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan.
From soundtrack to costumes, BlacKkKlansman pays incredible tribute to the era in its authenticity (BlacKkKlansman explores racism in the ’70s to highlight its persistence today). Even behind the scenes, the format Lee shot the movie in is the same used of the time: 35mm film. Acting for film, Washington says presents challenges but also has its advantages. After tipping his hat to cinematographer Chayse Irvin, Washington says of acting when film starts rolling, “It gave us slightly more pressure to get it right or get it true. You gotta know your lines. You can’t be messing up, so that was good.”
However, it also allows for genuine moments to go with the flow, should an actor mess up their lines. “I mean it’s like theater,” he continues. “The show must go on, even if you do flub the line, just believe in what you’re saying and keep rolling with it. In fact, it was some of the mistakes or ad libs — basically both, which are the same sometimes — that he kept, which made it even more special, made it more authentic, made it more connectable to the audience, like it was real life, like a documentary, not necessarily just a cookie cut film.”
You can read much more of my interview with Washington in the “Miami New Times” by jumping through the headline below:
BlacKkKlansman opens everywhere on Friday, August 10. There are some independent theaters showing the movie here in South Florida, including O Cinema Wynwood and the Landmark at Merrick Park. Focus Features invited us to a preview screening for the purpose of this interview.