When the final scene of “I Am Not Your Negro,” a film described as an incendiary snapshot of James Baldwin’s witness to race in America, went to black, a numbing silence filled the Lawrence Library auditorium, and hung there.
No one in the packed room applauded. Not because the Oscar-nominated film isn’t good, but rather because “face it, the story of race in America is a difficult one. It’s an open wound. This is not the kind of film one applauds,” said Kevin Willmott, the film professor at University of Kansas who in 2004 made the mockumentary “C.S.A.: Confederate States of America.”
Willmott’s film, made with director Spike Lee, assumes an alternate America where the South won the civil war. The plot bears resemblance to one being used for an HBO proposed series, “Confederate,” to be done by “Game of Thrones,” creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.
African-American couple Nichelle Tramble Spellman (“Justified,” “The Good Wife”) and Malcolm Spellman (“Empire”) also are writers and executive producers on the proposed show.
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Willmott, who led an audience discussion after the screening of the Raoul Peck-directed “I Am Not Your Negro,” said he and Lee are now talking to their lawyer about similarity between their movie and the HBO series.
In an interview with The Star before the screening of “I Am Not Your Negro” last Wednesday evening, Willmott said his 13-year-old “C.S.A.: Confederate States of America,” came before what he agreed is a recent surge in interest from Hollywood for film about black America, done by black writers and directors and starring black actors.
Here’s what else Willmott had to say about film and race in America.
How has the conversation around race changed in the last five years?
I think there are more black voices in the conversation African Americans and others have made some progress in Hollywood so I think you are getting to hear voices that are actually from black people.
Why do you think it is that Hollywood seems more interested these days in stories about the black experience in America? Stories like “Moonlight” (2016 Academy Award winner for best picture)?
I think that in the last few years it has been revealed to those paying attention that there are still a lot of race problems in the U.S. — Ferguson and the killings of unarmed black men — and the election of Donald Trump made people understand that we clearly have a divided country. Hollywood follows it never leads. There are so many stories that need to be told. I’m glad to see folks embracing them now.
Is Hollywood ready to put money behind black films, about black people done by black writers and directors?
I think it has gotten better. I think one of the things that you are seeing is the break up of the studios where you now got Netflix and Amazon. For example our (Willmott and Lee) film Chi-Raq never would have been made by anyone but Amazon. These alternative studios that are a big part of the film industry have just kind of opened the door up now.
What are the roles of art and film-making in addressing the issues?
It has always been the goal of African-American film makers to have our voices heard in a way that will make a difference.
There have been many films made about race and black America before now, haven’t there?
Yes. And that has presented an issue of frustration. There are projects that come out that are compromising because Hollywood tries to target them to a white audience and this isn’t so much about race as it is about money. In Hollywood everything is about money.
What do you mean target a white audience?
Often times they would try to insert a white character that doesn’t need to be there. The Help, is a great example.
What is the difference between the black exploitation films of the 1970’s the Foxy Browns and the Shafts and the movies about race in America that Hollywood is picking up on today?
What’s different is the various stereotypes that were in those black exploitation films. Stereotypes are not so easily apparent in today’s film and television.
Willmott said he was encouraged by the stories movie goers and television watchers are getting nowadays from television producers, screenwriters, and authors like Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder), who include the lives of black people in their stories that aren’t necessarily black stories but rather American stories.
People like Rhimes, Willmott said, have kicked open the door, paving the way for others to continue telling the historical Black American story.
That story, Willmott said, is like Baldwin’s “I Am Not Your Negro,” which was created by Peck from Baldwin’s 1970s notes, tapes and recordings for an unfinished tale of race from a tumultuous time in American history. Baldwin died in 1987.
“Unfinished maybe because this country wasn’t ready for it then,” Willmott said. “We are barely ready for it now.”