Professor Kevin Willmott roams in front of the blackboard as three dozen University of Kansas students pay rapt attention. He introduces the concept of a “controlling idea” to his Basic Screenwriting class, hoping to enhance their first screenplay assignment.
“You need to have a clear notion who the main character is. You need to know what the movie is about and a strong problem the movie introduces,” Willmott tells the class, punctuating his point by tapping chalk on the board.
“Never be nice to your lead characters. Make your characters earn everything they get in the film.”
Outside of the classroom, Willmott is busy showing his students just how it’s done.
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And now he is preparing this week’s debut of his latest play, “Becoming Martin,” at KC’s Coterie theater, telling the true-life story of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s teenage years.
So what’s the controlling idea of “BlacKkKlansman?”
“It’s about ‘twoness,’” Willmott says.
“This is a concept W.E.B. Du Bois established. It’s like two warring factions within one dark body. Those two warring factions — as Du Bois phrased it back then — are being a Negro and being an American. That twoness is something black people have struggled with since coming to American shores. It takes on different forms every day.”
In “BlacKkKlansman,” Willmott says, the concept is embodied in detective Ron Stallworth being black and a policeman.
The biopic, which Willmott co-wrote with director Spike Lee, explores the bizarre true story of Stallworth and his Jewish partner on the force who infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s. It’s based on Stallworth’s book.
“Whether black people are in law enforcement, the military or the world of business, sometimes their decisions can be detrimental to the black community,” he says. “Do you speak out or not speak out?”
“Becoming Martin” shows King at 15 as he entered Morehouse College, where Benjamin Mays, the school’s president, helped guide him in his pursuit of leadership. The family-oriented production stars Walter Coppage as Mays and Aaron Ellis as MLK Jr. It runs Sept. 18-Oct. 21.
“The controlling idea of ‘Martin’ is that we ask the questions: ‘What does it mean to be a minister? Does a minister divorce himself from politics? Or is religion inherently connected to social ideas?’” Willmott explains.
What drew him to the story was both the shockingly young age at which King attended college and the fact he had no intention of preaching for a living.
“He did not specifically like what black ministers looked like — what he called the ‘emotionalism of the church,’” Willmott says. “Mays exemplified how you could be an intellectual and a minister. If he had not met Mays, I don’t think he’d ever have become a minister.”
Himself a graduate of both Marymount College and New York University, Willmott had staged several shows for the Coterie, including “The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963” and “The Little Tommy Parker Celebrated Colored Minstrel Show.” But he has gone a decade since having a play performed there. Last year, he says, the Coterie commissioned him to create “whatever he wanted” as a kickoff to the theater’s 40th anniversary season.
“I started out writing plays first. One of the things you miss in screenplays is that concentration on the dialogue,” he says. “Plays are more about language.”
“Kevin has an incredible ear for not only how people talk, but also how they think,” says “Becoming Martin” director Chip Miller, who is enjoying his first collaboration with Willmott.
“This play is so much about the power and need for debate, and the ways in which he has woven the arguments in the play together is quite masterful.”
Willmott believes history is the main theme that “Becoming Martin” and “BlacKkKlansman” share. The play centers on a young MLK looking for answers to racial problems the whole country is facing.
“That’s the common connection to most of my work: looking for the answers to these kinds of questions,” he says.
Willmott first found success in the indie filmmaking world with his Lawrence-shot projects “C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America” (which Lee executive-produced), “Jayhawkers” and “The Only Good Indian.”
Then, three years ago, he reconnected with Lee. The pair had actually met at NYU when the fledgling filmmaker was dating a student in Willmott’s dorm.
Together they wrote “Chi-Raq,” taking the ancient Greek play “Lysistrata” and applying it to gang violence in modern Chicago. Although the 2015 feature generated positive reviews and plenty of controversy, it took home less than $3 million at the box office.
“When you’ve got a movie that’s different, you’ve got to explain it to people,” he says. “‘Chi-Raq’ could have used some festival attention to make it clear to the audience what the film was about.”
Fortunately, “BlacKkKlansman” collected both a 10-minute standing ovation and the prestigious Grand Prix award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival in France. He says the combination of post-festival press coverage and an effective ad campaign gave the biopic momentum heading into its Aug. 10 release.
The project already grossed $43 million in its fourth week of release.
Now the buzz has shifted to its chances at the Academy Awards, with a number of prognosticators talking best picture, director and adapted screenplay.
“I hate to even talk about an Oscar,” Willmott says, laughing.
“How can you think about something like that? The only thing for me is when I was a kid, it was fun to watch the ceremony with my mother. But you never think, ‘Oh, one day …’ It’s just not even a concept.”
Back in the classroom, Willmott hears students pitch their respective screenplays. One proposes a drama depicting a woman’s adjustment to a cancer diagnosis. Another envisions a neo-noir concerning a one-legged detective.
Willmott, whose graying beard is the only evidence that he just turned 60, is quick to steer the conversation past the initial pitch into a fully developed story.
“When it comes to movie ideas, everybody on Mass. Street has a first act,” he warns. “But nobody’s got a second act.”
While imposing and possessing a booming voice, Willmott gives off the impression of accessibility to his students. His cinematic topics may be defiant, but his congenial nature shines through. Decked in jeans and a black T-shirt, he also wears a piece of clothing when he teaches not often seen in classrooms: a bulletproof vest.
He’s not fearful of retaliation from his students. Instead, he dons it as a political statement, a rebuke of last year’s new law allowing KU students to bring handguns on campus. It’s earned him the nickname of “bulletproof professor.”
This simple act of dissension seems like something King might appreciate.
“I’m a complete believer in non-violence,” Willmott says.
“The fact that people have attacked Colin Kaepernick for the kneeling protest like they have, it tells you how effective it is. It tells you how disturbing it is when individuals stage an organized protest in a place it’s not supposed to happen. It’s literally driven the president of the United States to call him names. To call his mother a name — you know, son of a bitch. All Kaepernick did was kneel. Just put one knee on the ground.”
He adds, “People can attack King and Gandhi, but they did show us the way.”
“Becoming Martin,” written by Kevin Willmott, will run Sept. 18-Oct. 21 at the Coterie theater at Crown Center, 2450 Grand Ave. See thecoterie.org or call 816-474-6552.
Kevin Willmott created the documentary “William Allen White: What’s the Matter With Kansas” in honor of the 150th anniversary of the birth of the famed editor of the Emporia Gazette. The film will be shown, followed by a Q&A with Willmott, at 2 p.m. Sept. 22 at Liberty Hall in Lawrence as part of the Free State Festival. Tickets are $8. See freestatefestival.org.