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Filmmaker Kevin Willmott to participate in online chat about 'Chi-Raq'

Monday, November 23, 2015

LAWRENCE – More than 2,600 people have been shot in Chicago this year, a number that has grabbed national headlines.

When Kevin Willmott, associate professor of film and media studies at the University of Kansas, looked for ways to address urban violence, he didn’t want to make another film documenting Chicago’s gun problem. That had already been done.

He was more interested in solutions. In “Chi-Raq,” which opens in theaters across the country Dec. 4, an unusual but ancient tactic for ending violence is proposed: The women of Chicago go on a sex strike.

Willmott co-wrote "Chi-Raq" with director Spike Lee and is an executive producer. The film, starring Nick Cannon, Angela Bassett, Jennifer Hudson, Samuel L. Jackson, John Cusack, Wesley Snipes and Teyonah Parris, is a satire inspired by the ancient Greek comedy “Lysistrata.”

It’s designed to make people uncomfortable and to start thinking about solutions, Willmott said.

“You can check out of a drama. If you want to, you can say ‘that is not my world.’ Satire, if it is done right, makes everyone a little uncomfortable and a little more willing to take ownership of the problem,” Willmott said. “It’s not about women launching sex strikes, but it is about thinking outside the box and people finding new solutions that haven’t been used before.”

At 2 p.m. Dec. 2, KU will live stream on Meerkat a conversation with Willmott, who will talk about his work on the film. To watch, follow KU on Twitter and submit questions before and during the live stream using #KUchat.

“Chi-Raq” is inspired by Aristophanes’ 411 B.C. comedy, “Lysistrata,” which is often translated with a Southern vernacular and has a history of being performed by African-Americans, including Sidney Poitier and KU alumna Etta Moten. Willmott performed the play in college and thought it would lend itself well to a modern retelling centered on gang violence.

Around 2004 after the release of “C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America,” which Willmott wrote and directed and Lee was credited as a presenter, Lee read Willmott’s script and pitched it to Hollywood studios. Nothing materialized.

Fast-forward 13 years. Lee suggested rewriting the script to take aim at Chicago’s gun violence. “Chi-Raq,” slang that combines Chicago and Iraq to denote the city’s high rate of gun fatalities, was born.

The film was shot over the summer and primarily in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. While on location, Willmott said the pervasiveness of the violence was evident as residents would mention the death of a father, brother, sister, daughter or cousin.

“Everyone you spoke to had been touched by violence in some way,” Willmott said. “It is a normal piece of reality that shouldn’t exist.”

Benefiting from Willmott’s work with “Chi-Raq” are his students, who in class get a peek into the business end of filmmaking.

“Without being discouraging, I tell my students that it is hard work and a lot of luck. Look at this story. I wrote it 13 years ago, and now it is finally being made. And that is not untypical,” Willmott said.

“Chi-Raq” is Amazon Studios' first original movie and will stream on Amazon after the film’s theater run ends.

Willmott has also recently released the hourlong documentary “Gordon Parks Elementary,” which follows a Kansas City, Missouri, charter school that was closed by the state because of poor test scores and then reopened. The film is airing on public television stations in Kansas and Missouri.