by Katy Yocom
Kevin Willmott has been a frequent visitor to Spalding University’s School of Writing over the past decade. We invited him first to talk about his Sundance Film Festival film C.S.A.: Confederate States of America, a satire that imagines life in contemporary America if the South had won the Civil War. He visited again in 2016, following the release of Chi-Raq, a modern-day retelling of Lysistrata set on the South Side of Chicago, co-written with Spike Lee.
He returned—virtually, this time, due to the pandemic—in November 2020 to accept the Spalding Prize for the Promotion of Peace and Justice in Literature for his body of work. His visit followed a summer of protest in Louisville and around the country after the police killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and other Black citizens.
Since his earlier visits, he had become an Academy Award winner, sharing the Best Adapted Screenplay honor for Lee’s critically acclaimed film BlacKkKlansman, based on the true story of a Black police detective’s infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan in 1970s Colorado. His co-written screenplay with Lee, Da 5 Bloods, about Black veterans returning to Vietnam fifty years after their tour, was recently named the best film of 2020 by the National Board of Review. Willmott’s original film about the 1917 Houston Riot, The 24th, which he co-wrote and directed, also premiered last year.
In September and October 2020, Kevin and I spoke about his career as a screenwriter, filmmaker, activist, and professor. I sent him questions by email, and he sent me back a video recording of his responses. We discussed his influences, his activism, his collaboration with Spike Lee, his vision of “community filmmaking,” the reason he went back to Kansas—and why, for a time, he taught his classes wearing a bulletproof vest.
Kevin hails from Junction City, Kansas, and studied at Marymount College and NYU. In addition to writing and directing, he serves as a professor of film and media studies at the University of Kansas.
The following exchange has been edited.
Katy Yocom: Thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview.
Kevin Willmott: Hey, Katy! How you doing?
KY: What does it look like when an idea comes to you, and how do you know when you’re onto something?
KW: When an idea comes to me for a script, often it comes out of frustration about something, or a desire to express something I’m feeling. So for instance [with] CSA, I was really pissed about the Confederate flag. Even in Lawrence, Kansas, you’d see it on people’s bumpers all the time. It was still flying over the State House in South Carolina. This was in the early 2000s, late 1990s, and politically, no one was thinking about getting rid of it. I mean, Black folks were saying “This is really bad,” and no one seemed to pay any attention to our feelings about it. So I wanted to make a film about it, once and for all to say “This is what the Confederacy means.”
I thought making the Confederacy today and putting it in the context of our lives today might shake people out of the romance and love they have for the Confederacy. I was aiming for people who just saw the Confederate stuff as part of normal life. I wanted them to be as aware of it and as pissed off about it as I was.
Destination: Planet Negro! [a time-travel comedy about a Jim Crow-era spaceship crew aiming for Mars that lands instead in Obama-era America] came out of a love of those old 1950s sci fi movies and early 1960s movies—Destination Moon, Rocketship X-M—combined with the rise of President Obama. I thought a lot about my parents. My father was born in 1898. He was sixty when I was born. Both of them had passed away by the time [Obama] became president. Growing up, we just never imagined in a million years that there would ever be a Black president. That was always the joke: that if someone got elected, they would kill him the next day. Because that’s what they did; they killed everybody. So when it happened, and it happened in such an amazing way, that idea [for the film] came out of that.
With The 24th, I saw this photograph of the trial of the Houston Riot and I thought, “People should really know this story.”
KY: Where do you find inspiration in your writing?
KW: You know, I’m very opinionated (laughs). I care a lot about politics and social justice, and I think I care about that stuff because I care about people. I picked it up as a kid that politics was really people. That history was about people. Justice and injustice. I would read those biography books about important figures, and that was the thing I got from it: that their everyday lives shaped our everyday lives.
The first time I saw my mother cry, I was in kindergarten. I came home from school and she was crying and she said they assassinated President Kennedy. Well, what’s assassination mean? Who is John Kennedy, right?
I was in fourth grade when Dr. King died. That was the big one for me. I was watching television with my parents and the bulletin came across the news that he had been assassinated. My mother started screaming and hollering. My father and big brother were trying to calm her down. And I turned to my brother and said, “Who’s Martin Luther King?”
[The 1960s were] such an interesting time to grow up. So much was happening. Our mother had us watch the news every day before we went to school. I was really a current events guy. I learned history from either going to the movies, or watching movies on television, or seeing it on the news. You would go to the movie and then you’d go home and play [re-enact] the movie. I learned a lot about World War II from those old bad World War II movies, John Wayne movies. And all of it just gave me this love of history. But always through the lens of people. Of how history shapes our lives, for the good and the bad.
KY: Who are your influences as a screenwriter and filmmaker?
KW: Gordon Parks was a huge inspiration as a kid for me. He was the first Black director I knew and wanted to emulate. I saw The Learning Tree as a kid, and then when he did Shaft, it just took the whole thing to another level. I saw him doing “The Making of The Learning Tree” on TV, and that galvanized [the idea] that I could maybe do that. He was a big inspiration in terms of wanting to be a filmmaker and being able to kind of see yourself that way. The fact that he was from Kansas meant a lot to me, because you never saw anybody that was from Kansas.
It’s so funny because I teach this class on African-American images in film, the history of it, and so many of the Black performers were from Kansas. I never knew that.
When I first started making films, they weren’t making the kind of Black movies I wanted to make. Not that I didn’t like some of those movies, but I didn’t see the things that I was trying to do. Do the Right Thing was the first movie that was kind of—people said it reminded them a lot of Ninth Street [Willmott’s first film]—and that’s funny because I never thought I would end up working with Spike. But that was the only movie like the movies I wanted to make. It had the same sensibility, the same kind of thematic things, same kinds of characters.
The big thing I learned from [Spike] was I had to go back home to make my film. He had a lot of cooperation from all the people he knew in New York. I didn’t know anybody in New York. So I had to go back home to Kansas where people knew the story I was trying to tell and knew me and believed in my reputation as a writer and hopefully a filmmaker. And that really worked for me. I think that was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done, was coming back home. Because I was able to create a niche here for myself.
KY: Your work with Spike Lee has garnered a lot of attention, not least a shared Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for BlacKkKlansman. How did the two of you find each other, and what is your collaboration like?
KW: I met him years ago at NYU when I was going to school there, and he was just having his success with She’s Gotta Have It. I think he was dating a girl in my dorm. I would see him occasionally walk through. But I never thought I’d actually work with him, mainly because I was out here in The-Middle-of-Nowhere, Kansas, and he was in New York.
I made my film CSA, and when it got into Sundance, my agent said, “Spike Lee heard about your film, and he’d like to see it.” He really loved it, and he gave me a call and said he wanted to be supportive of the film. So it’s presented by Spike Lee.
He said, “Do you have anything else?” I had a script called Gotta Give It Up, which was based in Lysistrata, the Aristophanes play from 411 B.C. He read that and really loved it. We worked together for a year, really, trying to get that film produced. Had meetings all over Hollywood and couldn’t quite get it done. Jennifer Lopez was going to be Lysistrata in the film. We met with her and she was really cool. So—couldn’t get it done, I went my way, he went back to his thing, making movies. And then, like, fifteen years later he calls me and says, “Do you still have that script?” I said, “Yeah, man, I still got it.” And he said, “Look, let’s set it in Chicago and call it Chi-Raq.” So that’s how Chi-Raq happened. After that was BlacKkKlansman and now Da 5 Bloods.
I think the key to collaboration is you have to respect the other person and they’ve got to respect you. You should not be competing against each other. With Spike, he’s the director, and when I’m working with him, he makes it clear what he wants. That seems so simple, but people often don’t really know what they want. You get “I don’t know what I want, but I know it’s not that.” You end up being in kind of an impossible situation.
It’s always a pleasure to get to work with him. He knows what I’m interested in, so if he has something he thinks I might be good at, he might give me a call. He seems to trust me and of course I emphatically trust him, and it just works really well. I consider him a friend. He’s just a good guy and he’s been very supportive. [Working with Spike has] never been really work.
KY: In 2017, you wore a bulletproof vest to teach classes at KU in order to protest the state law allowing people to carry concealed weapons on campus. Can you talk about your personal activism and how it relates to your creative work?
KW: It’s all activism to me. My movies are all activism. I got that, I think, from growing up seeing what’s called the “problem pictures” of the 1960s, early ’70s, late ’50s. I saw most of those movies on television as a kid. Sydney Poitier was a big, huge hero of mine. Big inspiration. Bellafonte—it was really great that I got to work with him on BlacKkKlansman, got to meet him. Movies like The Defiant Ones and Gentlemen’s Agreement, almost any Poitier movie. Lilies of the Field. Even ones that are corny when you look at them today, you know they had great impact at the time. They moved the civil rights movement forward. Patch of Blue. Those kind of movies—it taught me that movies can address things. You don’t have to be preachy, but there can be a point to them. That really stuck with me. I like teaching those movies. I think movies should have a point and they should make society a little better place.
One of the big things I learned from activism that transferred to filmmaking was working with the community. When you don’t have a budget, you have to give people ownership of your movie. Not financially, because a low-budget movie’s not worth much. You give them ownership in terms of their investment and cooperation and belief and assistance with the film. That’s one of the big things I learned firsthand with Ninth Street. I call it “community filmmaking,” where people really rallied around what I was trying to do. You give them opportunities to do things they normally were not going to be able to do. You’re patient with them in terms of them learning how to do it. And everybody kind of raises the boat, you know? A high tide raises all boats. And a community can create a high tide.
That’s what I learned from community filmmaking, and really all of that came out of activism. You need a lot of help and you’ve got to be democratic about it. You can’t turn people away. All of [those things] were great lessons that I learned, and I try to carry that forward through all my films.
KY: You’ve written original scripts—among them The 24th, C.S.A.: Confederate States of America and Destination: Planet Negro!—and you’ve adapted work from Lystistrata to Ron Stallworth’s memoir Black Klansman. I’d love to hear your take on the difference between adapting an existing work and writing an original script. Do you have a preference?
KW: When I was at NYU as a student and they gave us an exercise on adaptation, I didn’t quite get what they were talking about. I think what [eventually] clicked for me was controlling idea.
When you’re taking something that’s in book form, or a play or whatever, and turning it into a screenplay, there are certain things that just don’t transfer very well, because film has different requirements. I try to be as loyal to the source material as I can. But when you can’t be, then you’re being loyal to what’s called the controlling idea or the theme of the book. Figuring out that theme is really important, because that controlling idea ends up dictating the choices that you’re going to make.
With BlacKkKlansman, one of the big themes of the movie is the whole thing of twoness, W.E.B. Du Bois’s notion about twoness—being Black and being American and “two warring factions in one dark body” kind of idea. There’s different levels of twoness in the film. There’s the level of Ron Stallworth being Black and dealing with these Klan guys. And then there’s Ron Stallworth being blue—a policeman—and dealing with these Klan guys. There’s the Adam Driver character who is Jewish and dealing with these anti-Semitic guys. Each of them is dealing with twoness in various ways. Ron’s character is also dealing with his love interest in the film. That’s a Black-blue problem again. And a Black-Black problem—she’s saying, “You’re not the right kind of Black person.” And so again—it’s that Black and American struggle that Du Bois talks about. So figuring out that controlling idea—the theme of the movie—is, I think, really critical in terms of adaptation.
When you write an original script, you have a lot more freedom in some ways, because this is your world and you’re creating everything in it. But you always have other limitations. Oftentimes, when I’m making my own films, it’s going to be budget. The other thing is, you’re being defined by what you want to say and how you want the story to unfold. In that sense, you’ve got certain parameters even in an original script.
I just wrote a script about Arthur Ashe, a biopic. There was no source material, but you’ve got to find articles and read books about him, and you’re picking and choosing from a million little sources. Interviews and film clips. All of that, you combine to turn it into what you want to say about him. In that sense, you’re dealing with that same process that you’re doing with adaptation: You’re finding the big controlling idea, theme, comment that you’re making about Arthur Ashe’s life and then you’re bringing all these sources in to say that “my comment is true.” That all these sources add up to confirming that your notion is correct. So in the end, it’s all kind of the same thing.
KY: I’m curious about your writing habits—the way you work.
KW: I write pretty much every day—even Saturday and Sunday, I’ll write. It doesn’t feel like a workaholic thing to me. It doesn’t mean on the weekend I’ll work very long necessarily. But I really like writing and I go instinctually to the chair every morning and go at it. One of the things I’m big on is not being frustrated in your chair. If you’re stuck and you can’t figure stuff out, you need to get out of the chair, and go someplace else or go do something else. Go talk to your friends. I used to go to the library, video stores. Someplace where I could get my creative juices flowing. [Then] you go sit in the chair and you do it. So when you’re sitting in the chair, you’re ready to work.
KY: We often hear that the purpose of various forms of writing is to educate and entertain. What do you think is your role and responsibility as a screenwriter/filmmaker?
KW: I used to be a stand-up comic in college. I was a huge Richard Pryor fan. He taught me a lot about comedy timing—I can do whole Richard Pryor albums (laughs). [The] entertaining part of it is key, because if you can’t entertain, you really can’t educate. If it’s not fun, if it’s not funny, if it’s not dramatic—all of those things—you’re dead in the water. You’re just preaching at that point.
Entertainment has to be the guise, it’s got to wear the mask, so you don’t see that it’s education. People don’t want to be educated. I mean, that’s why America is such a dumb place. We don’t like education. And that’s okay, because artists—that’s what our job is, is to educate through our entertainment.
KY: More than most screenwriters/filmmakers, you have a consistent voice throughout your filmography. I’d love to hear your thoughts about why that voice is important to you, what you’ve had to sacrifice to stay true to it, and what gifts it’s brought you.
KW: Living in Kansas helped a lot, because I was not lured (laughs) into trying to be in Hollywood and trying to get in with the whole machine and all. Early on, when I was living in New York and trying to get my career started and I just wasn’t getting anywhere, I had to come to the conclusion that these people don’t really want to tell my story. And I had to do something different. That’s when I came back home and made my first film, Ninth Street. Doing that—being in Kansas and working at KU and being able to develop my own world—protected me from trying to become part of something else. So I never felt like I was being asked to do something that wasn’t really me, something I didn’t really believe in. Because that’s all I was doing, was doing my own thing.
I learned early on that you can’t try to be somebody else. Every movie I make comes from what I believe in, what I care about, what I’m interested in. I don’t think much about whether it’s going to be financially successful or not. I just don’t think that even matters. All I care about is trying to tell the best story the best way I can—so in that sense I’ve kind of been protected, being out here. I think it’s helped me to keep that consistent voice that you’re asking about, because I wasn’t trying to win favor, I wasn’t trying to break into the industry. I never tried to break into the industry.
When I had the success of CSA and they said, “You’re a director and you can have these projects,” I looked at the projects they offered me and I didn’t want to do any of them. The ones I was interested, I said, “I’d do it like this” and they said, “No, you can’t do it that way.” So it’s like, well, I don’t want to do that, then. So I just went back to doing the thing I’ve always done.
Being a director in Hollywood is about doing what they want you to do. I mean, Spike’s been very fortunate that he had a big success and he was able to tell his story in the way he wanted to. That’s pretty rare in Hollywood. And I’ve kind of done the same thing on a low-rent basis (laughs)—on a low-budget basis—that he’s done. That’s why I think we’ve worked well together. We don’t do things we don’t believe in, things we don’t really care about.
The gift it’s brought me, I think, is I’ve been able to write about the Black experience, about history, about social issues, and about historical figures in a way that has made it kind of second nature for me now. Each one is different, each one has its own set of challenges. But doing it for so long, and doing it within this genre of movies for so long, you probably can’t help but become a little better at it.
KY: Do you have a personal favorite among your films—one that’s closest to your heart?
KW: It’s hard to pick one. Each film I learned a great deal from. I like Destination: Planet Negro! a lot because we were able to pull it off. I’m glad I just tried to do it. Oftentimes, when you want to do something and you don’t have the means to do it, you just end up not doing it and the whole thing kind of drifts away and it doesn’t happen. So the fact that we got that film done, I’m really pleased about it. I’d been wanting to make a movie like that for a long time.
With Destination, 1950s sci-fi movies had bad special effects, so I’m kind of making fun of all that. But also, that was good for our budget because we had no money. I shot Destination for about seven thousand dollars. We shot over a couple of years. That’s one of the reasons I play one of the parts—the joke is that I knew I’d show up every day. We’d shoot on the weekends. Matt Jacobson, who’s a professor at KU with me, he’s my cinematographer—we shot some things in his class and he used them as shooting exercises.
It’s just really important not to let the budget stop you. You’ve got to be smart in terms of not fighting against the budget but kind of embracing and then working around the problem.
KY: You’ve often used satire in your work to shine a light on the absurdities of our country’s racial and cultural realities. As I write this, the country is reeling from the grand jury decision not to charge the officers involved in Breonna Taylor’s death. The president of the United States is saying he won’t accept the results of the presidential election if he doesn’t win, and he intends to push through the nomination of a Supreme Court justice to fill Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat specifically so he’ll have a majority to rule in his favor in a contested election. That all happened in just the past two days. Is the current state of our country affecting your approach to your work? Does satire seem more or less relevant to you now?
KW: Yeah. Crazy times.
I have a script I wrote a few years back, when President Bush was still president, about the Sarah Palin period. I wrote a scene where the Sarah Palin-type character, it’s a political ad for her, and she’s shooting a machine gun, and she says some crazy religious stuff. I thought I was being way over the top, doing something really crazy. You see that ad now! That ad is a normal ad now.
American life has become so absurd that it’s hard to satirize. Satire was always taking the reality of something and taking it one step further to shine a light on the absurdity of it. It’s hard to know how to go one step further—everything is so crazy now, in terms of politics.
I mean, Saturday Night Live is great satire, but Saturday Night Live is making fun of stuff that happened that week, so the audience knows the context of the joke. In movies, often you’re satirizing a much bigger subject, something that [the audience has] to know enough about to understand the satire. That makes it more difficult. [But] I still think it’s a doable thing, and after this madness is over with, you’re probably going to see some good satire come out of it. Satire may change some, because of how absurd this period has been. You might see a new form or a new style of it—it wouldn’t surprise me. I think seeing how this whole episode ends will tell us a lot about ourselves and how satire’s going to unfold.
KY: What project haven’t you done yet that’s on your bucket list?
KW: There’s a movie about going to the movies as a kid that I want to make. I’ve got a first draft of it. It’s about my growing up in Junction City and a good buddy of mine who had a very dramatic story. I’d like to get that movie made—that period when I was going to the Blaxploitation movies. I want to make a movie that celebrates the Blaxploitation movies. Quite often we kind of make fun of them, which—I understand why, and that’s clearly a legitimate choice—but I think they should be honored as well.
KY: Where do you go for fuel?
KW: I think what keeps my fires burning is that I really love justice. I watch the news and I start getting pissed and I start talking real loud, and—you know, that’s just who I am.
I mean, I see something I don’t like, I see something that upsets me, and I don’t want to accept it. That’s why I wore the bulletproof vest, because no one seemed to know how to respond to that law enabling students to bring guns into the classroom. Everybody thought it was wrong, but no one knew how to respond to it. That was my way of responding to it. I just couldn’t go along with it without expressing my opposition to it.
So for me, that’s what it all comes down to. When you see the injustice of it all, you want to respond. And the response is where my art comes from. I hope to continue to do that.
KY: Thank you so much, Kevin. It’s a pleasure getting to talk with you.
KW: Thanks a lot, Katy!
Katy Yocom is the author of Three Ways to Disappear, a Barnes & Noble Top Indie Favorite, winner of the Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature, First Horizon Award, and other prizes. Her words have appeared in LitHub, Salon.com, Terrain.org, Necessary Fiction, American Way (the American Airlines in-flight magazine), and elsewhere. She serves as associate editor of Good River Review and associate director of Spalding University’s School of Creative and Professional Writing. Find her online at katyyocom.com.