“Tell Stories That Matter And Make People Better.” Kevin Willmott On ‘BlacKkKlansman’
Known for films like The Only Good Indian, C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America, The Profit and the recent hit, BlacKkKlansman, Kevin Willmott is a writer of race-centric, political history. Within this dense atmosphere, the screenwriter is also focused on the realities of an internal identity of the average American.
“What does it mean to be a person trying to live within American society?” the writer will often ask himself. In the Spike Lee-directed drama, Willmott helped recreate the world of Ron Stallworth, an African American police officer in Colorado Springs, who helped local forces take down a branch of the Ku Klux Klan with the help of a Jewish surrogate.
In terms of his own identity, Willmott believes his career as a screenwriter and his identification as an African American go hand-in-hand. “I wanted to be a writer from an early age. From my experience, learning to write, share stories, or tell stories was connected with what it meant for me to be an African American.”
The screenwriter grew up in Kansas and—in his mind—the Sunflower State has always been symbolic of the tumultuous American story. “Oftentimes, my movies are about American subjects. Remaining in Kansas has kept me close to the ground and kept me close to ordinary folks.”
Willmott currently teaches filmmaking at the University of Kansas and this ongoing connection has been helpful in his writing career. “Kansas, in a weird way, has always been in the center of American issues,” he added. In addition, the screenwriter is also preoccupied with helping film audiences understand themselves a bit more.
Entertainment or Social Change?
As a screenwriter, Willmott’s first goal is to entertain, but he does hope that social change will trail his thought-provoking content. “Nothing happens if it’s not entertaining. Nothing happens if it’s not a good story. But, for me, enlightenment or the process of revealing, has always been part of that. I like stories that tell us things that we probably don’t know about ourselves—especially ourselves as Americans.”
“In a weird way, the older you get, the more it takes on additional meaning. To me, it’s grounded in citizenship as well. One of the biggest problems in American life is that we, as Americans, don’t know what it means to be an American. We fall into things that are sold to us or told to us.”
“I would argue that the real stories that define us are what we really need to understand more. We often don’t educate ourselves about those issues very well. BlacKkKlansman is kind of an example of that,” he added. “But most of my movies connect to that idea in a sense.”
“I think it’s a challenge to be an American. It’s a challenge because we are all these different people from all of these different places and yet we’re suppose to get along, understand each other, and believe in basically the same thing. That’s a beautiful thing, but unfortunately, we’ve always had people that have told us one group is better than the other, or this is what it really means to be an American…”
Willmott added, “We’ve had that problem since the beginning of the country, and as time has gone on, it’s become even more complicated. People take advantage of what it means to be an American. They use it against other people and manipulate the concept of Americanism.”
“We’re experiencing that now, but this isn’t the first time this has happened. This is just the first time it’s happened on this kind of scale. That’s made being an American even more complicated and that affects the world. We’re not the only country in the world, but we’re a country that people look to for leadership and guidance. We’ve abandoned most of the good qualities of being an American. We need to get back on track.”
An American Satire
The screenwriter has strong views on what it means to be an American, but it can be difficult to express those views on the page. With BlacKkKlansman, however, Willmott was able to deliver in an entertaining and powerful way. “I think a lot of what I do is satire,” said the screenwriter. “
Thinking back on his films like C.S.A., Chi-Raq, and BlacKkKlansman, there are elements of satire in each. “The other thing that I would say about my writing style is that it’s grounded in dialogue. My father was born in 1898, so he was 60 when I was born. I grew up around older people and that has influenced my dialogue.”
“I use a lot of old sayings that come from being black at the turn of the Century and earlier,” expanded Willmott. “Dialogue has always been a big element for my style. I take a lot of pride in knowing how people speak—not just pride, but interest. I’m interested in the words that people use. Words define what period they grew up in, where they grew up, and how they grew up.”
“I’ve always been interested in stories where the conflict is about the principles that people have as well.” The writer considers questions for each character, such as “Who are you?” “Why are you doing this?” and “How does that make you who you are?” which shines true in his many screen credits.
In addition to style, Willmott has several thoughts on story. “What makes a good story for me is what you believe in how you see yourself. What are you willing to do because of these beliefs? That’s where conflict usually comes from.”
Making Movies For All
Willmott believes that the current state for all screenwriters is better than when he first began. When he first began, there weren’t many people making the movies he wanted to make. In fact, the reason he started making movies is because he saw the need for a new voice in cinema to express his thoughts.
“Things have broken up and there are more people making movies that I’m interested in, which has been really great. Terms like “minority writer” or “diversity writer” are good as long as they are grounded in an actual reality. Sometimes, they’re thrown around to make people feel better about themselves.”
“The reality—which goes both ways—is that movies like C.S.A. couldn’t be made by a white director. This is because Blacks and Whites don’t trust each other enough to give each other the ability to do that.”
“Writing is a reflection of the society that we live in. If we trusted each other enough, such as a hiring a white writer who believes in the same things as this black writer, I trust him to deal with this controversial subject matter—that would be great. But, we’re not quite there yet.”
Among his many artistic works, Willmott has also transitioned between fiction and documentary films. To do so, he’s noticed which aspects overlap and which do not. Specifically, he’s noticed an overlap in the search for conflict. Then, the goal is to define the problem and possibly even offer a solution regardless of format.
“In a narrative, you’re explaining conflict through the character’s journey. In a documentary, you’re trying to find the conflict. In many ways, they overlap, but you express them differently. For me, it’s my interest in history and those themes, issues, and ideas that inspire me to do both.”
For BlacKkKlansman, Willmott was one of four screenwriters. He met with Spike Lee when the two were working on Chi-Raq and they’ve since worked on several projects together. Jordan Peele approached Spike Lee for the project and then Lee suggested Willmott also come in to work on the screenplay.
“The writers before Spike and I (Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz) really helped to get us there. They really made the whole thing a reality, so my hat goes off to them. Writers are constantly being rewritten, which is a pain and no one likes that, but the final writers often get more or less credit.”
“Each situation is different. I’ve re-written before and I’ve been re-written,” lamented Willmott. “That’s part of the business. Sometimes it makes a film better and sometimes it makes a film not as good. The thing that I hope for BlacKkKlansman is that Spike and I made the film better.”
Above all else, however, Willmott only wants to tell stories that matter. “You hope that stories can make people better. You hope that it can make society better. You hope it can make the nation better. I don’t know if you’re really achieving that, but you hope you’re adding to the truth so people can understand things more.”
In addition to his hope for the future, the screenwriter also believes in the Golden Rule: Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you. “Usually, if you’re doing that, you’re doing okay, you know? People like Dr. King and the Berrigan Brothers have had a great influence on me, my faith, what I believe in, and my philosophical approach to life.”
For writers specifically, the screenwriter tells his students that there are many ways to enter the business, but his main advice is “Don’t give up.” He clarified, “Giving up has to do with staying with your career and holding onto it, but it also means finding a way to tell your story.”
“If your story isn’t being told, you can’t relinquish your powers to the world and give up. You can’t wait for someone to figure out that you’re a great writer,” he mused. “You have to find a way to tell your story. That’s how I ended up making films on my own. Making my own films allowed me to improve as a writer and improve my vision on the stories I wanted to tell. You have to find a way to do that.”
“The only way you can get better is by doing it. If you are doing it but not in a way that helps you create a vision and approach to your stories, then that’s detrimental as well. I believe everyone should have a point-of-view and making movies was how I was able to develop a point-of-view.”
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