With BlacKkKlansman, KU professor (and Spike Lee collaborator) Kevin Willmott has written one of the most important and surreal films of the summer
Less than hour after walking out of BlacKkKlansman, I spoke by phone with Kevin Willmott. Along with the film’s director, Spike Lee, Willmott co-wrote the film, which arrives in theaters August 10. Willmott also happens to live around here: he’s a professor of film and media studies at the University of Kansas. I told him I was still reeling from the experience of watching BlacKkKlansman. I said my immediate reaction was that the film — which won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, in May — was an absurd mix of comedy, tension, catharsis, and terror.
“That sounds like America today, right?” Willmott said, without missing a beat.
Boy, he isn’t lying.
Before we get to the film, though, a few words about Willmott. He’s been involved in filmmaking for a while now. In 2004, he made the wayyyyy-ahead-of-its-time C.S.A: Confederate States of America, a low-budget satire that imagined a world in which the South won the Civil War. (The New Yorker recently called it “ferociously imagined and deftly realized.”) Lee saw the film at Sundance, liked it, and eventually signed on as executive producer to lend it a higher profile. Years later, looking to resurrect a script he was calling Gotta Give it Up! (based on the Greek comedy Lysistrata), Lee called on Willmott for help. The pair re-wrote it, set it in Chicago, and re-titled it Chi-raq. It was Lee’s most compelling — and successful — movie in years. So when Jordan Peele — fresh off the success of Get Out — came to Lee with an early draft of a screenplay based on Ron Stallworth’s book The Black Klansman, Lee knew exactly who to turn to.
Based on the true story of Stallworth (John David Washington), a black rookie cop in Colorado Springs who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan over the phone in 1979 and had a white Jewish cop (played by Adam Driver) play him in face-to-face meetings with the Klan, the film burns with urgency, rage, and passion. Lee and Willmott (the first pass of the script was by Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz) establish two separate points of view. One is the journey of Stallworth, a fairly conservative guy who always wanted to be a cop and eventually grows to better understand the black power movement after witnessing the racial hatred of the Klan up close.
The second POV is self-reflexive and riskier, opening the movie up more easily to criticisms of being too overt. Opening with the Confederate flag flying high atop the famous Battle of Atlanta tracking shot from Gone With the Wind, and fading into a cringeworthy recreation of an overtly racist “educational” film, BlacKkKlansman examines the way media has portrayed blackness for a hundred years — and how racism has seeped into the fabric of society.
Or, at least, that’s how this white guy from Kansas interpreted it. Which is to say: the second POV in the film is, essentially, that of the black experience in America. Lee and Willmott have every right to be overt about it — the black experience in America is itself filled with overt racism.
Once Stallworth’s bizarre story shifts into high gear, so do the supremely uncomfortable situations and natural parallels to today’s culture. BlacKkKlansman is by turns hilarious and terrifying, with wild tonal swings. The screenplay takes time for diversions from the main narrative of sad, bumbling racists and two men coming to terms with their heritage to tell stories from minimalized black voices. Corey Hawkins plays black power leader Kwame Ture (formerly known as Stokely Carmichael) gives a rousing speech at a student rally, and no less an authority than Harry Belafonte sets the stage, telling in detail the tragic story of a lynching and the horrific real-time actions of the community involved.
If it sounds a little messy it is, but BlacKkKlansman is truly alive like few other movies I’ve seen. Even as he is careening from one extreme to the next, Lee is able to ratchet up the tension and release it in hilariously satisfying ways, never quite letting anyone off the hook. Nobody in the film achieves anything that looks like a real victory. When the film closes with the shameful events of our country’s recent history in Charlottesville, those documentary clips are seen in a whole new perspective — as a piece of the whole, not an isolated incident. With that powerful last segment, Wilmott and Spike Lee don’t just touch a nerve. They peel the skin back. Below, more of my conversation with Willmott.
What did Jordan Peele say when you were brought in to rewrite the script?
Willmott: The only thing Jordan Peele said was, “Make it funny.” And he didn’t mean comedy, he meant humor, you know? You can call it a satire, but it’s not really. To me, it’s about finding the truth of all of it, and that’s what Spike and I did. We went back and really tried to research, like with Stokely Charmichael, going back and finding his speeches, and fully embracing the reality of what this story was. And then because of that, embracing the cold, harsh, ugly reality of all of this, that’s where you find the humor. The other thing that Spike said was he didn’t want it to be a period piece. He wanted it to really speak to today. So I was always looking for things that connected to today — and, unfortunately, that wasn’t very hard.
The Pitch: You created a movie set in the 1970s that isn’t really about the 1970s at all.
Willmott: No, it’s not. In that sense, it’s Brechtian. The playwright Bertold Brecht is considered one of the first guys — if not the first — to take history and connect it to today. For instance, he does a play about Galileo, but he’s actually talking about nuclear weapons and nuclear energy and the conflict between science and government. And with Galileo, in his time, it’s science and the church. It’s that whole thing of taking something and putting it in the past to reveal what’s happening today.
But there are still love letters to black culture all over the place. The dance scene in particular is just such a nice break where you’re sitting with these people and this great music and watching them have a great time, despite all the crap that’s going on. It was startling that you made time for that.
Willmott: Yeah, I thought that was a really great choice of Spike’s. The best thing about the 70s is that it was so hip and it was so fun — and it looked so cool! I mean, I’m a guy of the 70s and even then we kind of knew, “This is really cool.” [laughs] The blaxploitation films, and the ‘fros, and the dancing, and Soul Train, and there was still consciousness, too.
That recalls the scene in BlacKkKlansman when you show the movie posters of the films they’re talking about, and the beginning of the film when you show that bizarre racist “educational” film with Alec Baldwin. It was obvious from the beginning that this film would not be afraid to talk directly to its audience.
Willmott: In the ‘50s, ‘60s, and into the ‘70s, they made these propaganda movies about how socialism was going to destroy the world and so forth, or these anti-communist short movies. The John Birch Society and various organizations would make these movies. So that was supposed to be one of those movies that the Klan would have made. But it could have been the John Birch Society, it could have been some neo-Nazi group — all those guys were all mixed together, you know? And you can find all those movies online now. Spike had fun with it, but it’s based in those real “educational” films. And I used a lot of those in C.S.A: Confederate States of America. Spike and I both grew up seeing those things, and certainly that’s been an earmark of documentaries now; they go back and find those old movies. So what we did was just make our own.
Starting the film with it sets a tone that lets you know how easy it is to laugh at these openly racist dumbasses, but at the same time there’s something hideous and sinister about the fact that they were so open. By the end of the movie, it’s harder to laugh because you realize they’re back. Many people who have a hard time understanding what the Black Lives Matter movement is all about didn’t grow up black, so they don’t understand that these kinds of attitudes have prevailed throughout their entire lives.
Willmott: We never thought about it as re-education, because that’s all in the story. That’s where the entertainment comes in. No matter how harsh we were going to be, or what kind of language we were going to use, how mean we were going to get, or too disgusting — I mean it’s the Klan, you know? Nothing is too disgusting. So with that, you just have to make it entertaining. You don’t want people to shut down. You just have to balance the entertainment level. We never talked about whether it was too much, because we always talked about making it real, letting the audience take ownership of it.
Did you work with Ron Stallworth closely on the screenplay?
Willmott: We really just went back to the book. Spike, Ron, and I — being guys from the 70s, we knew what guys like that were like and what they went through. When I got to meet Ron, I found out he’s a beautiful guy, just the kind of guy we thought he was. So we took the reality of his story, which is so crazy, but we had to connect it up so you could get the whole concept of it in an easy package. And what that concept is, is that there’s two Ron Stallworths — a white Ron Stallworth and a black Ron Stallworth. One’s working on the phone, and one’s infiltrating the Klan. But in a sense, it’s all coming from one Ron Stallworth, the real Ron Stallworth.
Adam Driver’s character gets to have that arc of coming into his own Jewish self. That’s something that black people and people from various backgrounds — that whole problem of “passing” is one that people still have today in various ways. That seemed like something to bring in. It wasn’t really in the book, but it was mentioned in earlier drafts of the screenplay that he was Jewish and we expanded upon it, dealing more with him not being connected to his Jewish self. When you have to deal with the Klan, it makes you have to come to terms with who you really are.
On the outside, people may look at this and say “It’s a black film.” But it’s not. BlackKklansman is about America.
Willmott: One thing I remembered when we were writing it was this: In college as an undergrad, I was president of the student body at Marymount College in Salina, and David Duke sent me a letter. It was a form letter that he must have sent to every college in the country. At that time, he was president of the NAAWP (National Association for the Advancement of White People), and he wanted to come speak on our campus. I never responded to him, but I always kept the letter. What he was trying to do was become mainstream. He was trying to make that transition that you see in the film: of taking of the hood and the sheet and putting on a business suit and running for office. At that time, he was running for Congress in Louisiana. And he won. So that’s part of what we deal with in the film, showing that transition of how the Klan was this outside hate group, and how they had become far more mainstream in American society. Now they talk now about immigration, and they talk about affirmative action, police misconduct, all these things that are really political talking points — but those things were introduced in a lot of ways by the Klan.
It’s uncomfortable to watch, because even when you think the white people in the movie are going to fully embrace the cause, they are still held back by societal norms. You walk the line so skillfully between giving the audience that catharsis but not going too far.
Willmott: It really just worked out that way. That thing about the cops wanting Ron to withhold the evidence of the case, that’s true. That’s the frustration he had to endure with all of this. And that’s pretty typical of America. The institutions as a whole just don’t like to deal with the ugly realities of American life. And that’s one of the things that really holds us all back. I would say that you need a steady dose of this so that you cannot become numb to it, so you understand this is something we’re just always going to have to deal with. That ying-yang that we do in the film, that’s how it is in real life. That’s certainly how it was with Ron’s investigation. But there’s a bigger lesson in terms of what Americans are going to have to deal with. I don’t think there’s ever going to be an overcoming of these issues, but things can certainly improve. It’s a constant battle, going back and forth — that’s what it really means.
The slogan “America First” is in the film, and you’re dropping a lot of references that aren’t subtle. So when something relevant comes up, it really touches a nerve. The last five minutes of the movie were brutal, because in the context of the film, Trump’s rhetoric and the Charlottesville riots are more than just scary, they are devastating.
Willmott: That was a late addition to the film. The joke Spike and I had at Cannes was that Trump and David Duke wrote themselves into the movie. That wasn’t really us, it was them. And that’s the reality of it, and it’s part of the real tragedy of what’s happening right now — they’re there, and they’re standing right in front of us. This is who we are right now, and we’ve got to deal with it.
What was it like to get such a rapturous reception at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year?
Willmott: Cannes was just a mind-blowing experience. I had never been there before, and to go there and to be a part of the film that won the Grand Prix and — more importantly — at the screening, they were laughing out loud, clapping in the middle of the film, and then they gave it a ten-minute standing ovation. You could tell: The world is waiting to see what America is going to do. They are waiting to see if we’re going to deal with this or not. And the question’s still there: Are we going to deal with it or not? The world was screaming to us at that screening: We love this and we’re ready. The question is: Is America ready?
I saw this at a critic’s screening, and the first thing I thought when it was over was, “I have got to see this with a full house. This is what the theaters are made for.”
Willmott: Yeah, and the Cannes screening was like a flashback to when I got to see blaxploitation films when I was a kid. Because we were all so desperate to see these images and these stories that we had never seen before, or hear people say things in a movie that we wanted so desperately for someone to say or do. That’s really what it was like.
Last one: There are so many connections to C.S.A. in this film. Any re-issue news on the horizon?
Willmott: IFC still owns the movie, but I haven’t heard anything yet. It’s kind of become — if I do say so myself — a cult classic, so I’m hoping it gets something. It was on hulu for a while. Unfortunately, that’s one of those movies that keeps being re-issued [in real life] every year whether it’s actually being re-issued or not. It just never fails to be relevant, you know?