This past year saw the reemergence of Spike Lee as a filmmaking powerhouse with his latest effort BlackKklansman, the true story of a black cop’s unlikely integration into the Ku Klux Klan. With the critical success of Klansman, many people have become aware of screenwriter Kevin Wilmott for the first time. But just as Spike Lee had been continuously making movies throughout the past decade (without the fanfare he’d once received), Wilmott was also working steadily as both a writer and director, crafting a number of remarkable features in relative obscurity. But those days are gone, and it is unlikely Wilmott will produce anything in obscurity ever again.
Wilmott is a professor of Film and Media Studies at the University of Kansas. He first broke into the film world with his screenplay for Ninth Street (1999), directed by Tim Rebman and starring Isaac Hayes and Martin Sheen. He then wrote and directed the brilliant mockumentary C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America (2004). With that project, Wilmott’s career began to gain traction. The reviews of C.S.A. were positive, causing Wilmott to catch the attention of like-minded auteur Spike Lee. Wilmott then followed C.S.A. with a string of impressive indie films, all well-crafted but largely unknown, including The Only Good Indian (2008) and the Wilt Chamberlain biopic Jayhawkers (2013). (One hopes the success of BlackKklansman will help these films finally receive the widespread exposure they deserve.)
In 2015, Wilmott cowrote Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq, a contemporary reworking of Aristophanes’ Greek comedy Lysistrata, retooling it to address the rampant gun violence in Chicago. The ambitious Amazon Studios-produced film received mostly positive reviews and opened up the doors for Wilmott and Lee’s second collaboration, the aforementioned BlackKklansman, produced by Jordan Peele.
This type of newfound (or in this case, long-overdue) success has changed many a man, but not Wilmott, who has kept both a level head and his day job. Wilmott has just written a new play, Becoming Martin, about a young Martin Luther King and his college mentor, Dr. Benjamin E. Mays. Wilmott is also working with Spike Lee on a third collaboration, although details about the project are not known at this time.
What films and writings inspired you at an early age, making you want to become a storyteller?
I think the first film that really inspired me was The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). We went to the movies all the time as kids, and movies were a big part of growing up in my neighborhood. But I think the first film I really started paying attention to as a film was The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. I remember one year when I was nine or 10, I asked for the soundtrack album for my birthday. My brother said, “We all knew you were weird after that!” [laughs]
In the past you’ve talked about growing up watching blaxploitation films, and you even teach a course about them. There are some negative connotations that come with those, some of which are deserved, some are not. What do you personally see as being some of the more positive takeaways from those?
That was the other big part of growing up for me—seeing those films and realizing that I could maybe be a filmmaker myself one day. And Gordon Parks was an influence, in particular, with The Learning Tree. It’s not a blaxploitation film, but that was a big one for me because it made me really think I could be a filmmaker.
But growing up in Junction City, Kansas, I went to a different blaxploitation movie every week. Every week! That was an amazing time. And some of those were great, and some of them were not all that good. But even then as kids, we were discerning, and we were being critical of them. You know, “That one was really great,” or “that one wasn’t so good.” We were talking about them and sort of analyzing them. I think the big thing, more than anything, was that we were really hungry to see images of ourselves onscreen. We were hungry to be the hero, and that was a big deal for us. And for me personally. I think that, as a kid, I kind of knew what the flaw was with those films. We were aware of that, even at that age. Maybe you liked the action, and the violence, and all the crazy stuff, but you still knew when it was a little too much. You were aware when it was kind of exploitative in the wrong way.
But there were a lot of great films that came out during that period. In the class I teach, I try to show them the great films of that period, and then talk about the problem areas of others. It taught us a lot of varied things about race and about being an African-American, but it also taught us a lot about movies.
You were in college when Spike Lee burst onto the scene. When you first saw She’s Gotta Have It (1986) and Do The Right Thing (1989), what was your reaction, and how significant were those films in your journey towards becoming a filmmaker?
I was at NYU when She’s Gotta Have It came out, and I remember Spike coming to my dorm. My dorm! I think he was seeing a young lady there or something. [Laughs.] But that was huge. My experience, I think, was a very similar experience to other people of my generation. The fact that I could see him, and went to see him speak and all of those things, made the distance between being a filmmaker and not being a filmmaker seem considerably more narrow. Suddenly you could see yourself as a filmmaker! And the thing that Spike did in terms of really telling his story and writing books about how he got his films made and what he had to go through to do it…to be honest with you, those were the reason I went back to Kansas to make my own film. I did that because I knew, specifically from him, that you needed a base of support to make your film. And people didn’t know me in New York. They didn’t know my story, and they didn’t know what my story was about. So I had to go back home to Kansas, where people kind of knew my home and the place my first film was about. They knew my history. So Spike was a huge influence.
Like Spike, you have an interest in addressing racial injustice in your work. And not only racial injustice towards black people, but also towards Native Americans. Did Spike have an influence on that, or was that always an interest of yours?
That was something we both had in common. I’ve always been interested in that. I was an activist before I went to film school. I’ve always been very deeply committed to fighting injustice, in various ways. So that was really kind of what made us connect, in terms of working together. You know, he’s got deep feelings about those things, and so do I. I’m kind of a history guy. I bring a lot of that to projects that I work with him on, and that’s what he admired about my film C.S.A. That’s where we met was through that film. I think that’s one of the big things we have in common.
Your first produced script, Ninth Street, took place in Junction City, Kansas where you grew up. And you had the likes of Isaac Hayes and Martin Sheen in that film, which was amazing for its budget. What was that experience like working on that film and seeing it get made?
Oh man, it was a miracle! It was the best film school I could’ve ever gone to because that was literally the first film I ever made. The result was a mixed bag. I mean, we did a lot of things right and we did a lot of things wrong with that film. It was my introduction into the Kansas City film world, and I made friends there who are my friends for life. It really allowed me to create a base of support and a base of production that has kind of carried me through every film I’ve made. It was just a beautiful experience. We all came together to make the film and we had a lot of support from Kansas City. And a lot of that came from the fact that, again, Spike had that big success, and I had gone to NYU. People kind of acknowledged that, and that kind of gave me support and acknowledgement that I hadn’t earned yet. So that was a big, big, big part of why I stayed in this area. Because everybody was so great and it gave me so much to make my films that I couldn’t have had otherwise. I had no reason to leave Kansas.
We talked about the blaxploitation films earlier… So here you were, working on this film and all of a sudden you’ve got Truck Turner himself in the movie. What was that experience like?
[Laughs.] Oh, let me tell you! Growing up in Junction City around the older guys, they would talk about Isaac Hayes. I remember the first time I heard them talk about him, and this was before his movies—this was just about his music. They’d talk about his bald head. And he was one of the first cool guys with a bald head. And then the Shaft soundtrack was just huge. The fact that he was working with Gordon Parks again made me really feel like I was connected in a way because Gordon Parks was a Kansas guy, too. When the opportunity happened for me to work with Isaac, it was literally a dream come true. I listened to the Truck Turner (1974) soundtrack every day for years. And that was one of those blaxploitation movies that we loved as a kid that made you kind of think about making movies. It was really inspiring for me. So when I got to work with Isaac, it was really great and he talked a lot about Ninth Street and how it reminded him of growing up on Beale Street in Memphis. And he loved the part he played in the film because it was more of a character part. It was similar to guys he grew up with in Memphis—all those older guys he grew up knowing, and that comradery that old guys on the corner kind of had. I was hoping to work with him again, but unfortunately he passed away before that could happen.
In 2004, you wrote and directed C.S.A.: The Confederate States Of America, which sort of established you in the indie film world. You seemed to have a lot of fun parodying documentary filmmaking and television shows and the commercials where you presented the over-the-top racist ads for things like Sambo-15 Axle Grease. Would you like to talk about that experience?
C.S.A. was my big breakthrough, career-wise, and it really has defined my point of view in a lot of ways. The thing that film taught me was that the South did win the Civil War. And I think people are finally catching up with that now. I think people were questioning the Confederacy way before people started looking differently at the monuments that are now finally being questioned around the country. And the Confederate flag and how we currently live in a kind of cold Civil War, and how the Civil War never really ended. It kind of goes back and forth, up and down, and right now it’s at a fever pitch again. It’s one of the great lessons of history about how when we don’t know or understand something, we’re doomed to repeat it. And we’re repeating it right now. That movie tells you everything you need to know about being an American. And the more people understand this whole thing we’re talking about, the better we’ll function as a nation.
I’m tempted to say that film was ahead of its time, but we can’t really say that because this is an issue that has always been here, even if no one was portraying it. But it feels hyper-relevant right now.
The problem has always been that no one ever knew how to get their hands around these issues. How do you talk about this stuff, and how do you really identify and pinpoint it? That’s been the thing that I think that film has really helped in terms of revealing a clear illustration of the problem.
That film caught Spike Lee’s attention. What were those earliest interactions with Spike like?
We had the same agent at the time. We were both at William Morris and they told me Spike was in the office and had heard about the film. They said he wanted to see it. So the agent asked if that was okay. I was like, sure! And he really loved the film, and he called me and told me he’d like to support me on it. So the film was “presented by Spike Lee.” And then he asked me if I had any other scripts. At that time, I had a script called Gotta Give It Up, which was what later turned into Chi-Raq. And he really loved that script. We went to almost every major studio pitching that movie, and we had two readings for Dreamworks. But it never quite happened. And then he called me one day about fifteen years later and said, “Do you still have that script?” “Yeah, I still have it.” He said, “Well, let’s set it in Chicago and call it Chi-Raq.” That project had stayed with him all those years, and since then we’ve been working a lot together.
Chi-Raq was a contemporary update of the play Lysistrata. What was it about the original source material that made you realize it could be adapted and updated in that way?
I was in the play when I was in college, during undergrad. This would’ve been in the eighties, you know. It just really sounded like spoken word and rap, and the play. And the point of it being an anti-war play and against violence resonated with me. And then when gang violence and gun violence became such a big problem in America, I saw that it could connect to that. So that’s what led me to adapt it into a screenplay, and Spike really connected to it as well. It’s a good example of how when you get an idea, you should try to stay with it if you can.
Chi-Raq was the first major film made specifically for Amazon. Since Amazon hadn’t done made films previously, was there any trepidation going into that?
That was really Spike’s call. But the producer behind it had a great track record of making independent films. So that made all of us feel at ease and confident it would work out well. And they did a great job with the film, and it was their first movie that they produced. It was a great experience, and going to Chicago, seeing all of that up close and personal was one of those life-changing events for me.
That film had a ridiculous cast. And on that movie, you also saw Spike reunite with former collaborators Wesley Snipes, Angela Bassett, and Samuel L. Jackson. As a fan of Spike’s ouvre, what was it like to be part of that? Did that stand out at the time?
That was like a dream come true, you know? You got to meet all these great people that you had seen in movies for years, and now you were collaborating with them. It was great. Everybody was really beautiful. Everybody was there for the right reasons. They were there to support the cause and send a message out against gun violence. On top of it, it was a lot of fun making the film. I think it was good for all of them, and it was definitely good for me. It was a great introduction to the world of filmmaking with Spike since some of these people had been in those other films, as had many of the crew members. There were several crew members that had worked on Do The Right Thing. It was really great to see how he does what he does.
W ere you aware at the time that your career had just taken a significant turn? Or did this still seem like business as usual?
It’s funny. I’ve honestly never thought much about my career. I’ve always just tried to make the films that I cared about and believed in, and I let all the other stuff take care of itself. For me, it was just great to be telling an important story. It was fun to work with everybody we discussed, but I try not to think too much about my career. I think if you’re doing important work, and you stay focused on that, then everything else will work itself out.
This year you teamed up with Spike for a second time with the adaptation of Ron Stallworth’s memoir, BlackKklansman. How did you become involved with the project, and had you read the book prior to becoming involved?
No, I had not read the book. I had heard of it, though. I think I saw it on the Internet or saw a news report on it. But I didn’t know much about it. I knew it was about a man who was able to infiltrate the Klan in some kind of way, but I didn’t know the details.
Jordan Peele approached Spike with the movie and asked him to direct it, but it needed to be rewritten. We went out and we met Jordan Peele and the guys at Blumhouse. It was a great meeting. They really liked our take on it. We read Ron’s book and developed what we would do with it. From the very beginning, Spike talked about not wanting it to be a period piece. He wanted to find those connections to today. So that was really our approach from the very beginning.
How significantly did the project evolve between the previous script and the one that you guys wrote?
I think the previous writers had a good take on it, but what we did was kind of go to the next level with it. They had made Adam Driver’s character Jewish. He was not Jewish in real life, but that was a choice that they made. So we went further into it. We brought in the past element of it, and the way he had sort of been denying that he was Jewish. The overall thing was that we brought the notion of “two-ness” into the film, two-ness being this divided self between being American and being an African-American. Ron is kind of torn between that two-ness in a lot of ways. He’s a policeman and he’s black. He’s black and he’s an American. His girlfriend is a black militant and she’s got really strong feelings about things. And of course there are two Ron Stallworths in the movie. One is Jewish and white, and one is black. We were exploring the whole notion of two-ness that W. E. B. Du Bois talks about, being trapped in two warring factions inside a single dark body. That was the big thing, I think, that we brought to the film that had not been there before.
You guys pulled off an impressive feat by managing to make the film funny without detracting from the serious nature of the material. While you were crafting it, was that a concern that the comedic aspects could distract? How did you approach that?
The approach really was the same approach that I did with C.S.A. and Spike did with Do The Right Thing. Both of us believe in the idea of not pulling punches on the bad stuff. By getting as close to hate as you can, and really exploring it and letting the Klan be the Klan, you expose the absurdity of it, and that’s where the humor is. It’s not telling jokes. It’s not trying to be funny. It’s really just exposing the insanity and absurdity of what the organization is all about. I think both of us learned that from Dr. Strangelove (1964), which exposed how nuclear war and the military industrial complex is absurd and it’s insane. When you look at it closely, it’s funny. That’s the key to successful satire.
As you and I talked about previously, the film’s closing montage featuring images of the Charlottesville tragedy is one of the most moving things I’ve ever seen. I saw the film multiple times in the theater, and each time I saw it the audience just sat there stunned in silence. And you look around, and most the audience is crying. It’s just amazing! That montage perfectly delivers the message that the fight isn’t over yet and that these things are still happening.
I was not involved in constructing the montage at all. That ended up being an editing decision that Barry Brown and Spike made. But I saw the film the first time without the ending montage, and then I saw it with it. It was genius, sheer genius in the sense that, again, we were always trying to show how it’s not a period piece and that the problem still exists today. Literally. David Duke and the current person in the White House—they’re both there. They’re in the village. It pays off all the hate that we talk about in the film. You see that this is who we are. There’s an element of “this is who we’ve always been, but this is who we are right now.”
I think that because it’s a seventies film and it’s funny in places, as serious as it is, you let your guard down a little bit. And then, when the footage shows up at the end, it just goes right to the gut because you know it’s true on this other level. We couldn’t have scripted that footage at the end. We’re trying to show in a movie that David Duke was trying to become mainstream in politics, and then there it is. It shows you that David Duke is now in the White House. It’s shocking, and it’s heart wrenching. Heather Heyer lost her life, so you’re looking at a murder, really. You could even argue a lynching, to some degree. It’s one of those American moments.
Boots Riley recently made some assertions about the film, saying it wrongfully glorifies Ron Stallworth, a cop, and that Stallworth was part of the Cointel Program and was basically an enemy of black nationalism. What are your thoughts on that?
We kind of decided not to speak on Boots’ whole thing.
Fair enough. What has been the single coolest thing for you involving this project? There’s been so much, from working with Harry Belafonte to seeing this cultural reaction to your film. What stands out for you?
There are so many things. I think one of the big ones was working with Harry Belafonte. Getting a chance to finally meet him. He was one of those people who, when I was growing up, was a hero of mine. One of the films I loved as a kid was The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959). In the film, a neutron bomb goes off and he gets trapped down in the sewer, and then he digs himself out of the sewer and he finds out that everybody’s gone. It’s a great film. It’s about race and it’s what they would call a “problem picture” back in the fifties. I loved those movies because they showed that film could be used to address the problem. So Harry Belafonte reading lines that I wrote was one of the big moments in my life.
I already know what you’re going to say to this next question, because you’ve already alluded to it, but I’m going to ask it anyway. There’s talk about Oscar nominations for both the film and yourself, and I want to ask, is that something you think about? I know the cool answer that everyone gives is “no,” but really, does that cross your mind from time to time?
[Laughs.] Of course. How could it not? But you try to put it out of your mind. The great thing about BlackKklansman was that whatever happens, we made a film that really spoke to a lot of people in the country. And it spoke to the problem of the country—the problem that we’re going through. And I have to say that that problem—what we’re living through right now—is one that people are still going to be talking about after we’re all gone. I’m glad to have been part of something that really helped to address that problem. In a way, it’s not as bad as McCarthyism, because McCarthyism destroyed so many people’s lives directly, but in a way it’s even worse than McCarthyism because it’s destroying institutions and destroying the nation as a whole. And I think BlackKklansman was the first film to really address that, and I’m really proud of it.