When the lights came up on an early screening of BlacKkKlansman in Los Angeles last August, a few keen-eyed moviegoers were stunned to see John David Washington, the film’s dashing star, fumbling for his car keys and cellphone like everybody else. This wasn’t some cushy private room at a Hollywood studio or producer’s home somewhere. The location was Rave Cinemas in the hardworking, predominantly African-American core where Baldwin Hills meets Crenshaw. Two giddy high school girls approached the actor as one pointed to the screen saying, “Aren’t you…?” To which Washington replied, with the broadest of smiles, “Guilty as charged.”
Washington, 34, grew up across town in the San Fernando Valley, and still lives there, but he used to come to this cineplex for the excitement. “It was the Magic Johnson Theatre back then, and people would laugh and holler and talk to the screen,” Washington says. “I was curious if the same thing would happen now.”
Curiosity satisfied. You could even hear a few “amens” during the film directed by Spike Lee about a real-life black detective who infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan in 1970s Colorado. Movie Twitter is already using the word “Oscar” around Washington’s breakout lead performance. Washington drove home that night with yet another surreal indicator that he’s no longer a ticket-paying nobody—as if “nobody” was ever a possibility. You’ve probably heard by now that Washington is the eldest of four children to two-time Academy Award winner Denzel Washington. BlacKkKlansman isn’t even his first Spike Lee film. At age 8, John David (he has no middle name and usually goes by J.D.) appeared with his dad in Malcolm X. “I only had one line, but I had to deliver it,” Washington says. “It had to be good.”
Lest you rush to judgment that Washington is just another case of the famous getting more so, and that it’s who you know that counts, consider how hard he’s worked to distance himself from his fortuitous DNA. Talking to him, you get a sense that he genuinely struggles to avoid being ushered to the front of the line. The signs are large and small. There’s nothing showy about his delivery. He shops for clothing at Zara and vintage clothing store Wasteland (“The stylists I work with would kill me for saying that,” he says). He also built an entire career outside show business. The more people suggested that Washington go into the family business, the more he built himself up as an athlete. Football in particular offered the appeal of being anonymous under a helmet. Washington was a standout running back at Studio City private school Campbell Hall in Los Angeles, and later at Morehouse College, before getting drafted by the St. Louis Rams as a free agent in 2006.