‘Jayhawkers’ to tell Wilt Chamberlain’s KU story in film

02/08/2014 8:00 AM

02/10/2014 10:12 AM

Filmmaker Kevin Willmott never runs from race. He swipes at intolerance, injustice and bigotry with satire and sci-fi alike.

His sixth full-length film, a sports biopic premiering Friday in Lawrence, recounts how a basketball giant named Wilt Chamberlain helped blur the lines separating blacks and whites in 1950s Kansas.

So to be accused of making a racist movie by a bunch of East Coast liberals?

That was a new one on him.

But there he was the other day, talking to a New York Times reporter because one of his movies had raised a ruckus at one of the most prestigious private schools in New York City.

Dalton School, which educated the likes of Claire Danes and Anderson Cooper, had shown “C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America” to its sophomores during a history-project event.

Willmott’s 2004 mockumentary shows what life might look like if the South had won the Civil War and slavery had never ended, an America where TV commercials advertise products like “Darkie” toothpaste and home shopping networks sell slaves. (The end credits note that that toothpaste really existed at one time.)

In the cushy setting of the elite Dalton, the message heard was not the satirical message Willmott intended.

Some students and parents were offended by the racial stereotypes — used for effect, Willmott says — and slammed it for being insensitive to African-Americans. School leaders apologized for even showing the film.

Wow, did they miss the point. And the chance to have a serious discussion about race in a school setting, Willmott told the Times.

“What’s amazing about the thing that happened in New York,” he says, “is I think it’s the case of people trying to be so right that they end up being so wrong.”

Maybe Dalton would be more interested in “Jayhawkers”?

Fulfilling a tall order

The movie has been more than 10 years in the making for the University of Kansas film and media studies professor and his production team. It’s the story of Wilt Chamberlain’s playing days at KU in the mid- to late-1950s and his relationship with two other big men on campus: legendary basketball coach Phog Allen and KU chancellor Franklin Murphy.

Years ago, filmmaker Spike Lee told Willmott that this movie could not be made because surely no actor alive could portray the almighty Chamberlain.

Enter Bill Self.

KU’s basketball coach offered someone from his own bench, forward Justin Wesley, now a senior, for the Chamberlain role. (Guess who’s now toying with the idea of becoming an actor after graduation?)

So yes, there’s basketball in the movie. But there’s also a story not often told of how the Kansas City-born Murphy, who went on to be chancellor at University of California, Los Angeles, used Chamberlain’s celebrity to start integrating the campus and the town.

“It’s really a rich story about 1950s America and how maybe the greatest American athlete of all time came here and really helped start the change from segregation to a modern society,” producer/writer Scott Richardson says.

The movie was shot in art house black and white, which might, for some, call to mind the look of Martin Scorsese’s boxing film, “Raging Bull.” The basketball scenes were inspired by the work of photographer Rich Clarkson, who worked many decades for Sports Illustrated: dark backgrounds, players brightly lit in contrast.

Cinematographers Matt Jacobson and Jeremy Osbern used their talents to make West Middle School in Lawrence look like Allen Fieldhouse of the 1950s.

“(Shooting in black and white) helps with the low budget, but it’s also an artistic, beautiful way to shoot basketball,” Willmott says. “Basketball is on TV all the time. So what new, cinematic thing can you bring to it?”

Money was hard to come by for the film, a hurdle for every independent filmmaker. Producers raised $54,000 on the crowd-funding website Kickstarter. They made the movie for less than $200,000, which Wilmott jokes is easily less than the catering bill for a major motion picture.

“The people who invest in our films over the last 10 years aren’t necessarily film investors,” Richardson says. “Most of the people who invested in ‘Jayhawkers’ were people who were really interested in seeing this story told.”

Early on, Barbara O. Chamberlain-Lewis of Las Vegas had protested the movie, claiming that an agreement with Willmott to tell her brother’s story had expired. Willmott contended that he didn’t need the family’s permission anymore when the movie became broader in scope than a Chamberlain biopic.

Willmott says he hopes the family gets to see the finished movie.

“I think they’re going to be happy with the portrayal of him,” he says.

National buzz

In Lawrence, the movie obviously has a built-in fan base among KU basketball fans and alumni. (KU alums, actors Kip Niven and Jay Karnes, play Allen and Murphy, respectively.)

A packed Allen Fieldhouse roared when the movie’s trailer was shown there last fall. Willmott’s task now is to use that local fervor to ignite national buzz.

National sports media have started taking notice.

FoxSportsKansasCity.com posted the movie trailer in mid-January, and YardBarker

, a sports blog run by Fox Sports, has run the trailer, too.

“Obviously you always want your film to be a national film. But it’s kind of the new model now for independent films to capitalize on the regional support that you have,” Willmott says.

“You really try to do screenings in your area before you get your distributor, before you have a middle man involved. It’s a way to pay back our investors and a way to keep moving forward.

“We’ve always done it to some degree with our other films, but this is the one we’ve done it with the most.”

Willmott currently is juggling the promotion of two movies: “Jayhawkers” and his satirical sci-fi flick, “Destination: Planet Negro!”

Then along came that “C.S.A.” flap.

If those students and those parents thought


movie was offensive, he says, wait until they see his equally snarky “Destination: Planet Negro!”

The film shows American black leaders in 1939 meeting to discuss the state of their race. They develop a secret plot to solve the “Negro problem” by shooting three black astronauts into space on a scouting mission to Mars.

All manner of hilarity ensues.

The New York Times is on line one, Professor Willmott. On screen

• Director Kevin Willmott’s “Jayhawkers” premieres Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the Lied Center of Kansas in Lawrence. Showtimes are 7 and 9 p.m. Friday; 11 a.m., 7 and 9 p.m. Saturday; and 1, 4 and 7 p.m. Sunday. General admission seating is $10.

785-864-2787, Lied.KU.edu, Facebook.com/JayhawkersMovie

• CinemaKC will screen Willmott’s other new film, “Destination: Planet Negro!,” during a special Black History Month event at 11 a.m. Feb. 22, at Screenland Crown Center. A $10 donation is requested.

816-500-9498, CinemaKC.com, Facebook.com/CinemaKC, PlanetNegro.com.

Join the Discussion

The Kansas City Star is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Terms of Service