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'BlacKkKlansman' taking Willmott from Kansas to Cannes

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

LAWRENCE — It’s the wave of populist nationalism buoying the political fortunes of President Donald Trump and France’s Marine Le Pen, among others, that will deliver Kansas filmmaker Kevin Willmott to the sunny shores of the Mediterranean next month when the film he co-wrote with Spike Lee, “BlackKklansman,” is featured in the competition at the Cannes Film Festival.

It’s the professor of film & media studies’ second co-screenwriting credit on a Spike Lee Joint – after 2015’s “Chi-Raq.” They have adapted a 2014 memoir by Ron Stallworth, the first black police officer in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in which he tells how he infiltrated a cell of the virulently white supremacist Ku Klux Klan.

The actual incidents took place in 1979, and the film is set in that time, but Willmott says the stranger-than-fiction story resonates with today’s political and racial climate.

“Some stuff you can’t make up,” Willmott said. “Every day we get reminded of that in various ways.”

Willmott said that, like his previous films “C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America” (2004) and “Destination: Planet Negro” (2013), “BlacKkKlansman” strikes a balance between comedy and drama while trying to say something real about race relations.

“Unfortunately, there are a lot of connections to today,” Willmott said. “‘BlacKkKlansman’ feels very much about the Klan today.”

Willmott cited the white nationalist protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year, during which counterprotester Heather Heyer was killed, and President Trump’s subsequent comments placed blame on “both sides.” Then there’s the ongoing controversy about removing various Confederate monuments.

“It’s still very much this fight about what America are we going to live in; what America are we going to believe in?” Willmott said. “The metaphor I keep using is, 'Are we going to be the C.S.A. or the U.S.A.?' That seems to be the real dilemma in American life and always has been. We have two choices: Are you going to expand freedom, or are you going to limit or reduce freedom? The U.S.A. wants to expand freedom. It wants to give women their proper place, bring the gay community in and acknowledge transgender people, and the C.S.A. comes in and wants to limit those things. And that is the fight for democracy we keep having. It seems like that is just the American struggle.”

Willmott recalled that when he was student body president at Marymount College in the late 1970s, former Klan leader David Duke wrote seeking an invitation to speak on campus as part of his then-new group, the National Association for the Advancement of White People. That, Willmott said, marked the beginning of the infiltration of Klan-like ideas into the mainstream of American politics.

“We think of the Klan today as just a small group of yahoos,” Willmott said. “But, unfortunately … their numbers are growing right now because of the president’s support of them.

“And I’m just going to say it like that, because it’s true. When you equate people that are protesting Nazis and the Klan and you say that there are good people there, too — when the president says that, it sends a message to that small group of people that are trying to keep their insane organization going. That really instills them with courage and energy.

“That’s the new Klan, with the hood off," he said. "It talks about immigration, affirmative action and entitlement programs. It talks about American values a lot. Even the slogan that the president uses, America First, that was a Klan slogan in the 1920s. So they sell this profound patriotism and love of America combined with fear of the other. … That’s why you see Klan endorsing President Trump. They wanted to merge themselves with mainstream as much as possible.

“That’s what makes the president acknowledging them in Charlottesville such a profound mistake. Because they’ve been looking for that kind of legitimacy since they took their hoods off, and Trump gave them that.

“Right now they feel they can come out of the dark, take the stage and sell their propaganda," Willmott said. "And the thing is that most of us know they will never take over America. The threat is always how their message infiltrates the mainstream in little drops.

“That’s one of the messages of the film; that this is not just happening in the United States right now, but it’s happening all over the world. Marine Le Pen almost won in France, and she’s selling this horrible, anti-Semitic, hate-immigrants kind of message. It’s happening in a bunch of different countries in Europe right now. …

“The fact that that kind of far-right-wing stuff is happening all over the world may be one of the reasons Cannes is interested in the film,” he said.

The Cannes Film Festival runs May 8-19, and the film is set to open in the U.S. on Aug. 10, the anniversary of the Charlottesville neo-Nazi march. The screening time and date for “BlacKkKlansman” in Cannes had yet to be set, Willmott said. He’s looking forward to networking and to meeting his hero, French New Wave auteur Jean-Luc Godard, who also has a film in the competition.

Top photo: In this 1922 image, three Klansmen stand beside a car driven by fellow members at a parade through counties in Northern Virginia. Credit: Library of Congress, National Photo Co. Collection.

Right photo: "Black Klansman" memoir author Ron Stallworth, courtesy of the author.

Bottom right photo: KU Professor Kevin Willmott. Credit: KU Marketing Communications.