Arts & Culture

Movie writer Willmott turns the King story upside down, an inspiration for MLK Day

Kevin Willmott is having a moment: ‘Becoming Martin’ and ‘BlacKkKlansman’

Kevin Willmott, a film professor at the University of Kansas, wrote the play "Becoming Martin," about teenage Martin Luther King Jr. It premieres at the Coterie theater this month. Willmott co-wrote the movie "BlacKkKlansman."
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Kevin Willmott, a film professor at the University of Kansas, wrote the play "Becoming Martin," about teenage Martin Luther King Jr. It premieres at the Coterie theater this month. Willmott co-wrote the movie "BlacKkKlansman."

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MLK Day 2019

This year marks the 33rd national observance of the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday. Monday would be his 90th birthday.

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The storyteller Kevin Willmott doubles back on history to tell a different story about the icon everyone has come to know as “MLK.”

The University of Kansas professor who wrote and directed the provocative film “C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America,” who wrote the screenplay for the film “BlacKkKlansman” and once wore a bulletproof vest to his classes in protest of guns on campus would rather tell you about the sensitive and budding teenager who went by the name “ML.”

Before there was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., there was “just a dumb kid who had to figure life out like the rest of us,” Willmott said. “He made mistakes. He rebelled. He learned. He had influences. He chased girls. He did all the things we do.”

This is where Willmott figured the story would begin when planning his speech for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City’s annual Rev. Fuzzy Thompson Community Luncheon in honor of King at the Downtown Marriott Jan. 15.

“I’m interested in what audiences don’t know,” Willmott said.

It’s the kind of counter-exploration that fueled his play, “Becoming Martin,” which was featured at Kansas City’s Coterie Theater this year.

The young ML, who entered Morehouse College in Atlanta at the age of 15, didn’t even want to be a minister, Willmott said. He was uncomfortable with the fundamentalist rigidity of his father’s ministry that marked most of the southern ministers and their congregations when he was growing up.

The road King took, portrayed in Willmott’s play, bends in those Morehouse years toward the civil rights leader horizon.

At Morehouse he met the Rev. Benjamin Mays who helped King see that he could think in new ways about the role of churches and their leaders in the face of injustice.

He learned about the peaceful, but forceful, civil disobedience taught by Mahatma Gandhi and the principled and intellectual resistance of Henry David Thoreau.

The civil rights leader, American politician and diplomat Andrew Young, Willmott noted, has said that if not for Mays and the Morehouse experience, ML may not have become the MLK we honor now.

If you start the telling of the Martin Luther King Jr. story with the saintly “I Have a Dream” speech, standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before thousands, or with his arms linked with the front line of the march in Selma, Ala., you lose the fallible humanity that he, like everyone, bears.

“He’s such a great man, such an icon,” Willmott said. “It’s hard to get your arms around him as a human being.”

But when you see the sensitive King as a teenager, troubled over his future, there is an inspiration that hits much closer to home.

“People should know, especially young people, that you can become Martin Luther King,” Willmott said.

King changed his mind and became a minister, Willmott said, because he saw a path through the church to more liberal thinking. The God in his Bible could shine on the kind of radical actions that would propel the civil rights movement. Other ministers also adopted the new thinking and many more followed.

“The civil rights movement could not have happened if those ministers remained fundamentalist,” Willmott said.

Now Willmott hopes people who could be leaders today take encouragement.

The injustices King and his peers saw were as stark as the segregation of schools and water fountains.

“The problems now,” Willmott said, “are hard to illuminate.”

“There’s always been a cold civil war going on in America,” he said. “But it hasn’t been as hot as it is now in quite a while. I think the example of how ML became MLK Jr. can really speak to the problems in our country.”

Joe Robertson specializes in reporting on criminal and social justice. He works to tell the stories behind the stories, while covering breaking news of all kinds.