'BlacKkKlansman' Co-Writer on Spike Lee's Vision, Living in a "Very Racist Time" and His Day Job as a Professor
"[Spike Lee] didn’t want it to play like a period piece. He wanted it to play out in a contemporary way," Kevin Willmott tells The Hollywood Reporter of the upcoming film.
On a recent morning, BlacKkKlansman co-writer Kevin Willmott hears a mention of collaborator Spike Lee. Immediately, his typically booming voice softens in awe. Kansas native Willmott has worked with Lee several times — Willmott is currently working on his next project with the recent Cannes Grand Prix winner — but his enthusiasm about the collaboration is to this day unparalleled.
“It’s a beautiful experience,” Willmott told The Hollywood Reporter via phone from his home in Lawrence, Kansas
Willmott, 59, most recently worked with Lee on the upcoming Aug. 10 release of BlacKkKlansman, a story rooted in a 1970s reality where an African-American becomes a detective for the first time in the Colorado Springs Police Department’s history. The lead, Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington in the film), goes on to an undercover operation where he finds his way into the ranks of the KKK with help of a fellow white cop, played by Adam Driver.
Lee’s connection to BlacKkKlansman has been documented, but Willmott’s was a little less clear. In 2017, Lee was contacted by Get Out director Jordan Peele, who had been working to get an adaptation going of the 2014 memoir by Stallworth, the very man depicted in the film infiltrating the KKK by becoming friends with Grand Wizard David Duke over the phone. (QC Entertainment acquired the rights to the book, and following a successful partnership on Get Out, Peele’s Monkeypaw joined QC’s Sean McKittrick and Ray Mansfield to produce the film alongside Jason Blum’s Blumhouse — making for a full Get Out reunion.)
Lee was then tapped by Peele for the director role. And Lee, who knew Willmott after working together on Amazon Studios' Chi-Raq, knew just whom to call.
Willmott has plenty to juggle aside from his work with Lee. Not only is he currently working on a play to premiere at the Coterie Theater in Kansas City this fall based on the college life of Martin Luther King Jr., but he’s also a professor in the University of Kansas film department. To fulfill his duties as a professor and creator, Willmott says he gets up almost every day at 5:30 in the morning to write in his home office. "It seems like I’m very clear in the morning," he said of his writing process.
What’s clear to Willmott any time of the day is that BlacKkKlansman will offer audiences with a dose of reality, especially after hate groups like the KKK have resurfaced into the mainstream. Willmott actually remembers getting a letter from Duke himself in 1981. Willmott was at Marymount College studying theater in Salina, Kansas. He was president of the student body at the time.
When he got the curious letter, he realized it was from someone who was head of the NAAWP (National Association for the Advancement of White People) looking to speak on campus.
“What he was doing then was making the transition from the hood and sheets of the Klan to really being a political figure. To be mainstream," Willmott said. This frightening transition is at the heart of BlacKkKlansman.
Willmott recently spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about his work on the upcoming film, including what he and Lee did to make the story work in today’s environment, and also what it’s like being a professor wearing a bulletproof vest on a campus that allows campus carry.
How did you get involved with BlacKkKlansman?
Spike approached me and said he wanted me to work with him on the script. We went out to L.A. and we met Jordan Peele and Jason [Blum]. That was really great, meeting them. They were big fans of Spike. They’re both from that generation. Spike has influenced a generation of filmmakers with his success, including them.
We really got into the story. We read the book. Spike and I talked about our take on it, and we went out and shared our take. What we do is try to go back to the origins of the story. It’s a real procedural book. So by embracing the facts and realities of it, that’s where we find the more entertaining elements of it. For example, Stokely Carmichael changed his name to Kwame Ture during that period. By looking closer at it, we embraced that part of the story and went back and looked at his actual speeches. He’s a leader that hasn’t been explored much in movies.
We make a movie like [BlacKkKlansman] entertaining by not running away from the serious elements of it. By really embracing it, that’s where you find the absurdity. And then in the absurdity is where you find the humor. That’s what I did with CSA: Confederate States of America, and every one of my films has that same element to it. Spike and I really connect in that way. I think that’s what he likes about my writing.
Spike didn’t want it to be a buddy-cop movie. We steered away from that. We didn’t want to make it funny. We tried to make it humorous. The humor has to come from the reality that you’re dealing with. One of the things Jordan Peele said from the beginning, the only note he really gave us, was to make it funny. So we did it in the way that we can do that. That was the key to the story.
What did you have to do to the story to fit Spike’s vision?
There were a couple scripts before us. They gave us a pretty good structure to the movie. But with all due respect to [the writers], we had to do a lot of work to make it into the movie Spike wanted to make.
Spike said from the very beginning that really is the overall theme of the movie. He did not want the movie to be a period piece. He didn’t want it to play like a period piece. He wanted it to play out in a contemporary way. The choices you make are choices that connect to the 1970s in the movie but also connect to today. That’s the thing that really makes the movie work and what Spike likes about the movie.
He talks about how sometimes period pieces become a thing that can easily be dismissed because you can say, “Well that was a problem then, so that’s not a problem now.” He didn’t want the film to be dismissed. He wanted it to have an effect on today.
What’s your backstory with Spike? How were you able to build that working relationship with him?
I met Spike in 2004 when i made my film CSA: Confederate States of America. We both at the time shared the same agent. So when he had heard about the film, he wanted to see it. At the time, CSA was at Sundance. He really liked it, and that’s how he became the presenter of the film.
After, he asked if I had any other scripts. I had this script called Gotta Give It Up. That script he read. He really loved it. We tried to make that movie. We went to all the studios, and it didn’t quite get over the hump.
A few years ago, Spike had called me. He said, “Do you still have that script?” I said yeah, and he said, “Let’s set it in Chicago and call it Chi-Raq.” That became the first movie that Amazon Studios made.
I wonder how you and Spike collaborate. Are you in the same room? What’s that process like?
When we’re rewriting a script, what we do is that we go through the whole script together. I read it through and he reads it through. We identify what the problems are. We do that, whether it’s by phone or he sends his notes and i send mine, typically by getting together and making a draft of it. I’ll do a draft of it and then he’ll do a draft from mine. We merge everything like that. It really works well. There’s a trusting relationship. I know what he’s looking for.
What is the nugget of truth in BlacKkKlansman that will hit with audiences today?
We’re living right now in this insane time. We’re living in a very racist time. These racist groups are on an upswing right now. They feel really empowered and emboldened. There was, unfortunately, a lot to work with to connect [the story] with today.
It’s been a year since you went viral for wearing a bulletproof vest while teaching class. How do you reflect on that decision a year out?
I’m still wearing the vest when I teach class. It’s an ongoing battle here. There’s organizations that are trying to get guns off campus. Unfortunately, the powers that be are pro-gun. As long as I’m teaching at KU, I’ll be wearing the vest as a protest to that policy.
Every time you see a school shooting, you realize how insane it is that we want to then encourage students to bring guns to school. It makes no sense. You feel like you have a responsibility. You know, i grew up in Kansas and decided to make my life here. The art that I make and produce always has a message of justice and peace. There are professors I work with now who are afraid of saying something in class because of students that may have a gun. It’s really detrimental to freedom of speech and the relationship students have with their professors. It’s a no-win thing.
You spoke earlier of Jordan Peele. What’s exciting you the most right now about the future of filmmaking?
It’s a great time to be in film right now. One of the things I love about BlacKkKlansman is that we acknowledge blaxploitation movies in it. I grew up with those movies as a kid. Those movies inspired me to be a filmmaker.
There are just so many avenues to get your story told now. When I first started in the industry, people my age can tell you the horror stories because of the limitations of a black filmmaker. The success of Black Panther helps. I remember going into meetings and them saying black films don’t do well overseas. Black Panther killed that forever.