NowThis News

Yes, the movie is based off a true story

Quick Notes:

  • The 2018 true crime film BlacKkKlansman was an adaptation of Ron Stallworth’s 2014 memoir.

  • Learn more about the real man who risked his life as an undercover African-American detective, working with the Ku Klux Klan.

In 2019, director and screenwriter Spike Lee won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for his 2018 true crime film, BlacKkKlansman. The movie follows the first African-American detective in the Colorado Springs, Colorado police department as he works to expose the local Ku Klux Klan (KKK) chapter.

The movie is based on a 2014 memoir by the real-life African-American detective, Ron Stallworth. Of course, every movie takes some creative liberties to make sure it is as engaging as possible for audiences. In this case, it is worth asking who the real Stallman is and what can audiences learn about him. We’ve got answers.

Interest in police work

Born on June 18, 1953, in Chicago, Illinois, Ron Stallworth grew up in Chicago’s South Side, where he frequently witnessed poverty, gangs, and violence. Eventually, his mother moved the family to El Paso, Texas, a move Stallworth said was the “best decision she ever made.”

FunkStudios: Control the Cool/YouTube

After his graduation from Austin Highschool in 1971, Stallworth’s family moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado, where Stallworth became interested in a career in law enforcement. He joined the department as a cadet in November 1972, and he was initially assigned to work in the Identifications and Records Bureau. But he didn’t stay in the department for very long.

Becoming an undercover detective

Stallworth was officially sworn in as an officer on June 1974. After 10 months of patrol duty, he was offered an undercover assignment to observe a gathering at a local black nightclub. Prominent socialist organizer and Civil Rights Movement activist Stokely Carmichael had been invited to speak at the nightclub. Stallworth accepted the assignment and immediately took to his role as an undercover police officer.

In 1979, Stallworth was reading the local newspaper when he noticed a classified ad placed by a new chapter of the KKK in Colorado Springs. He decided to answer the ad, pretending to be a white man who hated African-Americans.

Stallworth wanted a response, and he finally received one from a man working to found the new chapter. He was a soldier at nearby Fort Carson. Stallworth arranged to meet the man, and he sent a white undercover narcotics officer (wired to record the conversations) to stand in for him at the meeting.

Learning about the KKK

Stallworth continued to pose as a white KKK member for nine months. He reviewed secret FBI files on the history of the KKK in Colorado—first organized in the state in 1921. The Klan had an estimated 35,000 to 45,000 members. The files contained information on KKK bombings, arson, and other acts of violence. Stallworth investigated everything, diving headfirst into this undercover story he knew would be significant.

“People need to realize this (the KKK) is a threat to the very fabric of American society,” said Stallworth, who highly praised Lee’s film adaptation of his memoir. Stallworth always kept a low profile during his investigation, and no one in the KKK knew they were communicating with an African-American detective.

A successful investigation

Stallworth’s investigative work was solely to gain intelligence on the KKK. He commented, “From an intelligence standpoint, we were successful. We gained valuable intelligence.” To study the KKK and know their next plans, someone had to be involved in the organization. That person was Stallworth, and he wouldn’t have traded it for the world.

After the investigation closed, Stallworth worked as a narcotics investigator and on special assignments with The Organized Crime Strike Force that has been organized by the Colorado Attorney General. He ultimately worked in law enforcement in Wyoming and Utah. He retired in 2005, but his experiences will always stay with him.

A deeper dive – Related reading from the 101: