The new movie Chi-Raq, about gang violence in Chicago, opens Friday. It caused controversy long before it opened: Some Chicagoans don’t like their city being compared to Iraq, while other critics have said the premise is sexist. It’s making national headlines as Spike Lee’s new movie, but that’s only partly true. The script was first written by Kevin Willmott, a film professor at the University of Kansas.
Willmott's connection with Spike Lee goes way back – as does his tendency to make provocative films.
More than a decade ago at the Sundance Film Festival, Willmott screened C.S.A.: Confederate States of America. Filmed in a style that parodies Ken Burns' PBS series The Civil War, it's a mockumentary, supposedly filmed by a British news network, depicting the history of America after the South won the Civil War.
Willmott includes commercials for businesses (such as the Coon Chicken Inn) and products (Darkie toothpaste) that actually existed, or that would be sold today in the Confederate States of America. For example, there's an ad for the Slave Shopping Network.
“For the next hour, I am here with Joyce, and she has brought us some of the most incredible servants to pick from today,” says a saleswoman named Paula. “That’s right Paula, we have 40 of the most extraordinary Negroes, just off the tarmac waiting for you,” says Joyce. "And I know one of them’s just right for you and your home,” Paula says.
Willmott’s films are layered with these types of seriously uncomfortable jokes. His point is we’re not far from that reality.
"C.S.A. was my statement on the Confederate flag and on this unseen history of the United States," Willmott says.
The beginnings of 'Chi-Raq'... in Kansas
C.S.A. was the movie that got Spike Lee’s attention. Lee asked Willmott if he'd written anything else, and the two talked about a script Willmott had written based on the ancient Greek play Lysistrata, where the women withhold sex until their men stop making war.
"I was in Lysistrata in college, as an undergrad," Willmott notes. "It just stayed with me. I thought it was really funny and really smart."
This was at Marymount College, a small liberal arts school in Salina, Kansas, that closed in 1989.
"It was a great little college," Willmott says. "It’s crazy that the idea [for Chi-Raq] would have originated way back there."
Willmott grew up in Junction City, Kansas. He went to New York University film school and stayed in New York City for a couple of years. But he wanted to make a movie about Junction City, so he had to come home. In 1999, he released Ninth Street, which he says is about "how everyone is precious and everyone is worthy of respect, including wine drinkers and prostitutes and people on the margins of society."
Willmott’s been making provocative movies in Kansas ever since.
The Battle for Bunker Hill (2008) was, he says, his response to the culture of fear after the attacks of September 11, 2001. The Only Good Indian (2008) explored how forced assimilation in boarding schools robbed Native Americans of their culture. Jayhawkers (2014) is a reminder that Lawrence and the University of Kansas were segregated before Wilt Chamberlain arrived to play basketball.
He's currently finishing The Association, which, Willmott says, "is about the other side of major league sports, the corruption that’s interwoven in it, and how young black athletes and athletes as a whole not understanding the gift they’ve been given and blow their money."
There's also 2013's Destination Planet Negro.
"The film starts out in 1939, and black people are so desperate for equality and fairness and justice, and for the bad things to end, that they’re willing to go to Mars," Willmott says with a laugh. "So George Washington Carver creates a rocket fuel with a peanut and sweet potato and they take off."
But something goes wrong, and they pass through a time warp and end up here today, with a black president.
Willmott made Destination Planet Negro while thinking about his parents back in Junction City. Willmott was born when his father was 60.
"My father was born in 1898. That’s just thirty-some years after slavery," Willmott says. "When Obama was elected I thought about how my father and mother, if they had seen Obama become president, how insane that would have been for them."
In Planet Negro, Willmott’s time travelers discover the same thing as the rest of us: A black president doesn’t mean the end of racism or a lot of other problems, such as the black-on-black violence he tackles with Chi-Raq.
Being based in Kansas, and working out of KU, has been a way to get his movies made. Willmott says he can’t wait for Hollywood.
"I can’t wait for the money to come, or for them to figure out that a film is actually pretty cool. If I’d been waiting for permission, none of my movies would have been made. Nobody wants to make my films. Ever."
Except, now, Spike Lee. That’s the good news.
But Willmott’s dismayed by what he describes as a litany of policies that hurt people, especially poor people, in his home state.
"I really love Kansas, but it’s kind of sad to live in Kansas these days," he says. "It's very depressing. It’s not the Kansas I grew up in. It’s the new Mississippi, I call it."
But, that’s another story. Or maybe that’s America’s story, the one Willmott’s been telling all along.
C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.