Interview with Oscar-winning baby boomer

This is an exciting time of life for baby boomer Kevin Willmott. The Kansas-based filmmaker and University of Kansas film professor won an Oscar at the Academy Awards last year for co-writing fellow boomer Spike Lee’s film, BlacKkKlansman. Now they have another collaboration, Da 5 Bloods, which premiered during the pandemic and is streaming on Netflix. Kevin recently sat down for a chat with Abby Olcese of the Kansas City alternative newspaper The Pitch, which has given BoomerCafé permission to republish the interview.

AO: What does the movie making process of sharing ideas look like between you and Spike Lee?

Kevin Willmott (r) with Spike Lee.

KW: Typically Spike will call me about a project, and we’ll look at the script and decide if we feel like we can turn it into a Spike Lee Joint, in that sense. If we feel like we can, we develop a pitch, and we’ll go in and pitch to the producers. If that moves forward, he’ll fly me out to his studio in Brooklyn, and we’ll go through the original script and mark what we like, and what we might want to change. As we go through that, we’ll develop ideas for our take on the material. We go through the whole script like that. Then, usually, I’ll go back to Lawrence, and I’ll write up a first draft and send it to Spike, and we’ll send drafts back and forth to each other like that.

We kind of look at making black stories. With BlacKkKlansman, it was already a black story, but then the question became, what’s the best way of telling this story? With Da 5 Bloods, there was originally only one black character in it, so it was about getting it to a black-central story. We saw it as a way to tell the Vietnam story from the black point of view.

We’re always looking for links that are already there, and building upon those links, things that reveal something more about the black experience. Quite often, those links will involve me going to research things, like Hanoi Hannah and the fact that a big part of the Vietcong’s propaganda focus was black soldiers. It’s those things that we locate and then expand upon. I joked with Danny Bilson, one of the original writers, that we just blackified it.

But, it means a lot of different things when you approach a movie from the black experience. Like, with a subject as broad as Vietnam, there are so many parts of the black experience there that have never really been explored.

AO: How do you think working with Spike has impacted your own independent work?

KW: I think that both of us being filmmakers when I’m working for Spike, it’s great because Spike knows what he wants. Knowing what you want in film is kind of a huge thing. There’s not a lot of speculating on things when I work with him. That first meeting we have where we figure things out, we think a lot alike, so I think he kind of trusts me to go in a certain direction, and he takes that and builds upon it. In that sense, it’s really great because oftentimes when you’re working for other people, you don’t get that kind of clear direction and focus.

DA 5 BLOODS (L to R) Isiah Whitlock JR. as MELVIN, Norm Lewis as EDDIE, Delroy Lindo as PAUL, Clarke Peters as OTIS and Jonathan Majors as DAVID in DA 5 BLOODS.  Courtesy of NETFLIX © 2020

Working with Spike has reinforced my own process. It let me know that the things I had been doing weren’t bad, and that Spike works that way, too. I think when you’re going to write and then direct a project, it makes a big difference. You’re making choices for yourself. When I’m writing for Spike, I’m making choices for him, and the fact that I think most of those choices I would make as well helps a great deal.

AO: It sounds like, between this project, Da 5 Bloods and The 24th, your new film that’s currently seeking distribution, there’s a kind of through-line involving the black military experience. Is that something you’ve always been interested in?

KW: History’s my thing, and so often with history, the military plays a major role. Of course, growing up in Junction City, and being adjacent to Fort Riley, the Buffalo Soldiers were in my neighborhood, and that was a clear, huge influence on me. So, yeah, I think that it’s not so much just the military part of who they are or what they did, but the fact that there’s a struggle that goes along with that, the struggle for rights and equality, and how black soldiers, to this day, are still fighting for justice, in a sense. That makes it an interesting area to explore dramatically.

AO: I think my earliest awareness of your connection with Spike was when he produced your film C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America. It’s been 16 years since that film came out, but it feels like your points about contemporary America’s relationship to the Civil War and slavery are only just now becoming part of the public discourse. How has it felt to see the conversation finally start to come around?

KW: The last line of C.S.A. addresses Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima. It’s great to finally see those products looked at as the stereotypes that they are. But typically one of the things that should be mentioned, that isn’t mentioned, is that “aunt” and “uncle” are slavery terms. Aunts and uncles were house slaves, and they were given those terms so that the people who owned them could think of them as members of the family. Of course, they were owned, and if they got out of line, those slaves were sent downriver. They were thought of like trusted slaves, like trustees at a prison.

Oscar-winning filmmaker and professor Kevin Willmott.

Beyond the visual stereotype of it all, it’s like having products from Auschwitz. It’s like you’ve got this pancake syrup named after the lady who served the Commandant at Auschwitz, and they kind of liked her, so they called her “aunt.” That’s a thing that Americans have a hard time getting their heads around. I saw someone post something on social media that said “If syrup makes you offended, I pity you.” Like, if the name of a syrup offends you, you’ve got a real problem. Totally divorced from the whole history of what it is.

One of the things that I think George Floyd’s lynching has made people understand is that people saw his lynching, and it was such a disturbing image that it made people who previously hadn’t believed in the Black Lives Matter movement suddenly understand it on a profound emotional level. It’s sad that it takes something like George Floyd’s murder to make people understand these things, and that’s the real problem.

The publishers of BoomerCafé express special thanks reporter Abby Olcese, and Stephanie and Adam Carey of The Pitch in Kansas City.

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