Spike Lee may be one of the most respected names in Hollywood, but he had never won an Academy Award.
It took a University of Kansas film professor to help him achieve that honor.
“BlacKkKlansman,” the outrageous and blistering biopic Lee wrote with KU’s Kevin Willmott and two other writers, won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay at Sunday’s ceremonies.
They share the honor with co-writers David Rabinowitz and Charlie Wachtel, who all took the stage.
As Willmott hoisted his statuette into the air, Lee spoke for the group, talking of ancestors who were slaves and his grandmother who called him “Spikey-poo” and put him through college at New York University.
And he looked to the future: “The 2020 presidential election is around the corner,” he said. “Let’s all mobilize. Let’s all be on the right side of history. Make the moral choice between love vs. hate. Let’s do the right thing. (You know I had to get that in there,)” he said, referring to his iconic film that earned him an original screenplay nomination in 1990.
In addition to the screenplay award, the film was nominated in five other categories: best picture, director (Lee), supporting actor (Adam Driver), original score (Terence Blanchard) and editing.
Though he received an honorary Oscar in 2016, Lee had never won in a competitive category.
This was the first nomination for Willmott, a prolific independent filmmaker.
In recent days, a few prognosticators were betting on another true story to win adapted screenplay: “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” starring Melissa McCarthy as a struggling alcoholic author who became a forger. The film, written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, pulled an upset at the Feb. 17 Writers Guild Awards, beating “BlacKkKlansman,” the front-runner.
However, “BlacKkKlansman” won the adapted screenplay award at the BAFTAs (the British Oscars) the week before and created Oscar buzz as far back as last May by getting a lengthy standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival and winning the Grand Prix there.
The other nominees for the adapted screenplay Oscar were Joel and Ethan Coen for “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”; Bradley Cooper, Will Fetters and Eric Roth for “A Star Is Born”; and Barry Jenkins for “If Beale Street Could Talk.”
Two other local connections to this year’s ceremony: Shawnee Mission West grad and Big Slick Celebrity Weekend host Paul “Ant-Man” Rudd presented the Oscar for visual effects. And Jim Mahfood, a Kansas City Art Institute alum, was one of the animators of “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” which won best animated feature.
“BlacKkKlansman” is based on the true memoir of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), who in the 1970s was the first African-American police officer in Colorado Springs. In an undercover operation, he became a card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan by impersonating a white man over the phone, eventually sending his white, Jewish partner (Driver) to represent him in person.
At the end, the film abruptly pulls viewers into the present by showing actual footage from the violence in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017.
“One of the things Spike really wanted to do was make a film that connected to today,” Willmott told The Star last year. “Unfortunately, there are a lot of connections. The Klan has really had a rebirth. This comes out of the appeal for Donald Trump. He has made it OK for hate groups to be far more public in their approach to things.”
The film has grossed $90 million worldwide, ranking as Lee’s second-biggest global hit ever, behind “Inside Man.”
Lee credits its critical and commercial success to timing. “It’s just the time and this film, the stars were in alignment,” he told the Los Angeles Times this month. “Also, this film has connected the past with the crazy present day. Those are two things that I think are the big standouts of why everything has happened on this film.”
Willmott grew up in Junction City, Kan., attending college at Marymount College in Salina. Later, he attended New York University, where he and Lee met when Lee was dating a student in Willmott’s dorm.
Willmott first found success in the indie filmmaking world directing and writing movies he shot in Lawrence: “C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America” (which Lee executive-produced), “Jayhawkers” and “The Only Good Indian.”
The two reconnected in 2015 and together they wrote “Chi-Raq,” taking the ancient Greek play “Lysistrata” and applying it to gang violence in modern Chicago.
Willmott became something of a provocateur in real life when, in 2017, he wore a bulletproof vest to teach his KU classes — a vivid protest of the new state law allowing students to carry concealed firearms on college campuses.
“This is not the Kansas I grew up knowing and loving,” he said at the time. “The Kansas I grew up in always had a level of moderation.”
For his next project, Willmott is developing a two-part documentary on poet Langston Hughes, he told the Lawrence Journal-World. The film, “I, Too, Sing America: Langston Hughes Unfurled,” will delve into the life of the African-American author, who spent part of his childhood in Lawrence and made his mark during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.
Willmott is co-directing the film with Emmy winner Madison Davis Lacy, who also teaches film at KU. He hopes to release the documentary next year, probably for television.
Sharon Hoffmann: 816-234-4457, @Sharonakc