While most college professors spent the middle of May grading finals, Kevin Willmott earned a 10-minute standing ovation at Cannes.
Willmott, a professor of film and media studies at the University of Kansas, is now gaining international fame as the co-writer of “BlacKkKlansman.” The Spike Lee-directed feature film tells the true story of an undercover black detective (John David Washington) and his Jewish partner (Adam Driver) who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s.
On Saturday, the biopic won the prestigious Grand Prix at the 71st annual Cannes Film Festival in France. It’s just the fourth American movie to receive this honor (the festival’s second-highest award) since the category debuted in 1967.
“Never been through anything like that in my life,” says Willmott, who returned home to Lawrence on Friday. “You’re with this whole motorcade of vehicles going down the street. You get out, and there’s red carpet and thousands of fans and photographers. It’s like something out of Woody Allen’s ‘Stardust Memories.’”
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He says the festival crowd “ate the film up on many different levels.” But what became significant was the audience’s reaction after the screening.
“They started applauding during the credits. Then when the lights came up, they stood for at least 10 minutes,” the 59-year-old Willmott recalls.
“There’s Benicio Del Toro in front of me. There’s the director of ‘Dunkirk’ (Christopher Nolan) right next to me. I almost started crying — to know that I’d written something with Spike that had this kind of impact. I don’t want to give it away, but the end of the movie is very powerful. So it was hard to not just break down.”
The event also offered Willmott the opportunity to get to know his cast better, especially Driver and Washington (son of Denzel Washington), since the writer spent only a handful of days on the set when the production began shooting in New York last October. More importantly, Cannes gave Willmott his career highlight involving the iconic Spike Lee, with whom he most recently collaborated on “Chi-Raq.”
“I’ve worked a lot with Spike the last couple of years, and it was a profound moment to share that with him,” says Willmott, who has also directed his own features, including “C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America” (which Lee executive-produced), “Jayhawkers” and “The Only Good Indian.”
“BlacKkKlansman” is based on the book “Black Klansman” by retired police officer Ron Stallworth, the first African-American cop in the Colorado Springs Police Department. In 1979, he responded by phone to a want ad in a local paper seeking members to form a new chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. He recruited a white narcotics officer (called Chuck in the book) to wear a wire and meet with the fledgling Klansmen. The pair maintained this ruse throughout a nine-month investigation.
“I’d heard about the story years ago, but I never read the book,” Willmott says. “I did get to meet Ron Stallworth. He’s the real deal. He’s humble. A gentle soul. He made the whole thing a reality for me.”
Oscar-winning filmmaker Jordan Peele (“Get Out”) initially brought a version of the screenplay (written by newcomers David Rabinowitz and Charlie Wachtel) to Lee and Willmott. They revamped it extensively.
“When people see the film, they’ll see our influence,” Willmott says.
They also introduced one key cosmetic change.
"Spike and I were working one day, and we were looking at the title," Willmott says. “Then he wrote a 'K' in the middle of the two words. I went, ‘Boom. That’s it.’ Perfect.”
At a press conference following the awards, Cannes jury president Cate Blanchett said “BlacKkKlansman” “transcends the limitations of its culture.”
“Spike has made a film that is quintessentially about an American crisis, and yet all of us felt connected to it,” she said.
Willmott says one of the reasons an obscure piece of history has resonated so deeply with modern audiences is its cultural relevance.
“Unfortunately, as Spike likes to say, David Duke and Donald Trump were the co-writers on the script,” he explains. “I didn’t have to work hard to find links between today and the Klan. The things that the Klan says in the past, David Duke and the president say those things today about the present.”
As noted in advance reviews of “BlacKkKlansman,” the film’s incendiary ending incorporates footage of President Trump declining to condemn the deadly conduct of white supremacists during the 2017 riot in Charlottesville, Va.
"Those terrorist groups wrote themselves into the film," Lee told The Associated Press. "The real-life David Duke wrote himself into the film. The president of the United States wrote himself into the film. They gave us an ending we're not good enough to write."
“BlacKkKlansman” opens nationwide on Aug. 10, coinciding with the anniversary of Charlottesville.
“There’s this group of Americans that think that any time you talk about race, you’re being racist,” Willmott says. “They believe that if you ignore race, all the bad things that go with racism will go away by some kind of miracle. That’s simply not true. You see those comments online, and it’s too bad. You expect that from racist people like the Klan and Nazis, but the other folks just don’t know any better. We’ve got to grow as a country and understand that talking about race isn’t racism.”
The filmmaker claims he often hears the same criticism: “All Kevin does is make those race movies.”
“Well, if you haven’t noticed, I’m black,” he counters. “I’ve had to deal with race my entire life. My kids have had to deal with it. And their kids will have to deal with it. It should be one of the many things we fight against in America … to make it ‘great’ again.”