May 24, 2019

The Screenwriters Who Made ‘BlacKkKlansman’ Jewish

Adam Driver (left) and John David Washington in “BlacKkKlansman.” Photo by David Lee / Focus Features

BlacKkKlansman,” Spike Lee’s 1970s-set film about a black police detective who poses as a white man to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan, is nominated for six Academy Awards, including best picture, best director and best-adapted screenplay. It’s the first nomination for childhood friends Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz, and it’s their first produced script.

Based on the memoir “Black Klansman” by Ron Stallworth, about a black man who posed as a racist in telephone conversations and enlisted his white colleague to stand in for him in person to carry out the deception, the film resonates in today’s America.

“It hits a nerve,” Wachtel said in a telephone interview with both writers. “It’s easy to see the parallels between what the movie is trying to say and what our current climate is today. Spike always said, ‘We have to connect the past to the present and make it contemporary.’ ”

Rabinowitz believes the film benefited from fortuitous timing. “We got the script to Spike through Jordan Peele, and once [Lee] got involved, he was able to make it quickly and release it on the on the anniversary of the Charlottesville rally,” Rabinowitz said.

The writers first discovered Stallworth’s story in a Facebook post. They contacted the author via his publisher and manager, and they received permission to adapt the memoir on spec.

“We worked with Ron Stallworth to develop the script. We did multiple drafts and sent him every draft. He gave us feedback on every page,” Rabinowitz said. One of the things they discussed was the tone, which strikes a balance between serious drama and absurd comedy. “While the absurdist elements of the story lend themselves to comedy, it had to be something that people took seriously,” Wachtel said. 

As with most screen adaptations, there were changes the writers suggested early on. While it was never carried out in real life, “We wanted to make the bomb plot real so they had a specific thing to investigate,” Rabinowitz said. The screenwriters also turned Stallworth’s gentile detective partner into Jewish Flip Zimmerman, who must pretend he’s a racist, anti-Semitic Holocaust denier to carry out the ruse.

David Rabinowitz (left) and Charlie Wachtel. Photo by Eric Charbonneau

“We wanted to make him Jewish for a few reasons, first as a storytelling device to give it more stakes and more drama,’” Rabinowitz said. “Just like Ron has to deal with a certain split identity, we wanted to mirror that in his partner. [Klan leader] David Duke emerges as the central villain in the story and for him Jews are enemy No. 1. And we’re Jewish, so it’s our way into the story. Ron was right on board from the beginning.”

The Zimmerman role was expanded when Lee and Kevin Willmott did their revision of the screenplay. Wachtel knew producer Shaun Redick, who had worked with Peele on “Get Out.” Peele signed on to produce and they did another rewrite based on Peele’s feedback. Peele brought the script to Lee, who continued to shape it according to his vision. All four writers share the Oscar nomination.

It’s a dream come true for Rabinowitz and Wachtel, who met in Hebrew school in East Brunswick, N.J., and always wanted to be filmmakers. Raised in Conservative Jewish families, they attended each other’s bar mitzvahs and made movies together for high school projects — writing, directing, producing and acting in them. 

Rabinowitz thought that a career in filmmaking would combine his interests in creative writing and movies, and he set about pursuing it after graduating from Quinnipiac University. For Wachtel, two family trips to Universal Studios in Los Angeles and Orlando made a big impact. “We took the tram ride and I got to see behind the scenes on movie sets. I was able to see that making movies was actually a business,” he said. He moved to L.A. nine years after graduation from American University and Rabinowitz followed in 2012.

Today, both describe themselves as culturally Jewish, but they do observe the High Holy Days. “The content of the film being what it is, even having this conversation with you, makes me proud to be Jewish,” Wachtel said. “It’s something that’s been a constant in my life.”

They also said they have writing “in their DNA.” Author and playwright Sholem Aleichem is Rabinowitz’s great-great-great-uncle on his father’s side. Wachtel’s mother, Shirley Russak Wachtel, is an author whose memoir “My Mother’s Shoes” is about her mother, a Holocaust survivor.

Wachtel has thought about adapting that story “down the line,” but the pair already have several projects in progress. Interest in their work has picked up considerably since they woke up to news of their Oscar nomination on Jan. 22.

“It’s extremely rare. The first script we sold got made into a movie and got nominated for an Oscar,” Rabinowitz said. “Winning would be huge but the nomination feels like a win already, just being invited there. As a new screenwriter, you take a lot of meetings and may compete with 10 other people to get a job. With a nomination, the number goes down, or you may not be competing with anyone. And the quality of the meetings goes up.”

Benefiting from this interest is the first script they wrote together, a basketball-themed drama called “Madness” that will soon go into production. They’re also writing “Thacher Island,” about the origins of the witness protection program, and a Cold War spy series about Operation Mongoose, the CIA’s secret operation to eliminate Fidel Castro when he took power in Cuba in 1959. They don’t only want to make films based on true stories, however. “We’re very open to different genres and styles,” Wachtel said.

They’re ready to take advantage of their newfound status in Hollywood. “David and I have a lot of goals. We’ve talked about forming a production company together. We each have interests in directing and becoming a showrunner for television, as well,” Wachtel said. “We like to think we’re just getting started.”