Religious conversion can change a life. So can getting married, having children or losing a loved one.
But movies? Can a mere movie change lives?
“Oh yeah,” says filmmaker and film educator Kevin Willmott. “Oh yeah. Oh yeah. I’ve always believed that. I grew up watching Stanley Kramer films” — problem pictures like “Inherit the Wind,” “On the Beach,” “Ship of Fools” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”
“They stopped making problem pictures, but that didn’t mean the problems had all gone away.”
Willmott’s latest project is the Spike Lee-directed “Chi-Raq,” which opened in theaters this weekend (it later will be shown via Amazon streaming). This sprawling comedy/drama takes on gun violence in Chicago, where the number of civilians dead from bullet wounds far exceeds the casualties suffered by American special forces fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Filled with familiar faces — Nick Cannon, Jennifer Hudson, Angela Bassett, Wesley Snipes, Samuel L. Jackson, John Cusack — “Chi-Raq” is fueled by angry satire and a burning social conscience.
It also has classic roots. Willmott, who is also an executive producer of the film, based his screenplay on Aristophanes’ 2,500-year-old Greek comedy “Lysistrata,” in which women refuse to have sex until their men give up war.
“I first wrote it about 13 years ago,” Willmott, an associate professor of film and media studies at the University of Kansas, said in a recent phone conversation from Lawrence. “I acted in ‘Lysistrata’ when I was attending Marymount College in Salina. I remember thinking that Aristophanes’ language was so hip, so today. Spike and I wanted to keep Aristophanes’ verse and rhythm while incorporating modern rap and spoken word. They’re an almost perfect modern version of the ancient Greek presentational style.”
The two met in 2004 when Lee agreed to take a credit as “presenter” of Willmott’s mock documentary “C.S.A.,” which speculated on what life might be like if the South had won the Civil War.
“At the time Spike read my ‘Lysistrata’ script and tried to get it made. We went to every major studio in L.A. and even had a couple of readings at DreamWorks, but it never came together.”
Originally Willmott’s script was inspired by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group of Argentine women who for years demonstrated in Buenos Aires demanding answers about children who were killed by the military regime’s death squads.
About 18 months ago Lee called Willmott and asked for another look at his “Lysistrata”-inspired screenplay.
“Spike said, ‘Let’s set it in Chicago and call it “Chi-Raq”.’ At the time I knew there were problems in Chicago but I had no idea of the scope.”
While most of the structure of Willmott’s original script remained — including a one-man Greek chorus (played by Jackson) who directly addresses the viewer — the details saw some radical revision.
Willmott and Lee interviewed the Rev. Michael Louis Pfleger, a white priest heading a mostly black congregation at Chicago’s St. Sabina Roman Catholic Church. Pfleger’s dynamic oratory so inspired the filmmakers that they created the character of a white priest (Cusack) whose dialogue reflects Pfleger’s sermons.
“We added a lot of stuff that relates directly to Chicago. Chicago-centric slang, Chicago personalities.
“And we were incorporating stuff right out of the evening news.”
Willmott was on the set every day, doing updates and writing new dialogue to reflect the news.
One of the traps of anti-violence films is that by depicting violence they may make it seem exciting and romantic. But in “Chi-Raq” the death of a child isn’t depicted. Instead we learn the details through the eyes of her mother (Hudson).
“One thing I really like about the film is that it doesn’t glorify that culture,” Willmott said. “There’s no onscreen violence. I don’t think a young person watching this film will leave thinking they want to be a banger.”
So, does he think “Chi-Raq” could really make a difference?
“Well, Father Pfleger saw the film and talked about it with some former gang members. They said they wished they’d seen it years ago, because it would have made them stop what they were doing.”
At the very least, Willmott said, he believes the movie can put an end to “D&D.”
“After a shooting in a public place the police can never find witnesses,” he said. “Everybody is deaf and dumb. Nobody sees anything. Maybe the film can get some people to come forward.”
Willmott is also gearing up for his next directing effort, “The Association.” Suggested by former KU basketball player Scot Pollard, the film is about “the bad side of college and professional sports. Corrupt agents; athletes who blow all their money.
“Scot will star in the movie, but first he has to be in the next season of ‘Survivor.’ After that we’ll start shooting.”
Read more movie features and reviews from freelance critic Robert W. Butler at ButlersCinemaScene.com.