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KU’s Kevin Willmott teams with filmmaker Spike Lee for ‘Chiraq’

Spike Lee (left) and Kevin Willmott co-wrote “Chiraq.”
Spike Lee (left) and Kevin Willmott co-wrote “Chiraq.”

Kevin Willmott finds comfort in controversy.

The Kansas filmmaker earned that distinction with his faux documentary “CSA: The Confederate States of America,” which depicts a present-day America where slavery still exists. But the cameras had barely started rolling on his latest feature, “Chiraq” (pronounced shy-rack), before issues emerged.

The title derives from a combination of Chicago and Iraq — a nickname used to equate the Second City’s gun violence to that of a Middle Eastern battleground.

This riled Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who reportedly said he was “not happy” about the title — especially considering the production requested a $3 million tax credit. He’s one of several politicians who criticized the film when it began shooting June 1 in Chicago.

“Like a lot of cities, Chicago is very concerned about its image, specifically with violence,” said Willmott, who co-wrote the picture with renowned director Spike Lee.

“People (in government) work very hard to make the city look a certain way. The problem was, they didn’t know anything about the film. It’s not a gangster film. It’s not an ’80s gang movie. It takes a whole new approach to the situation and a whole new style to filmmaking in general.”

Willmott, an associate professor of film and media studies at the University of Kansas, based the screenplay on Aristophanes’ ancient play “Lysistrata,” a comic account of a woman’s quest to end the Peloponnesian War by persuading the women of Greece to withhold sex from their husbands until they forged a peace treaty.

“Aristophanes wrote that in 411 B.C. Now that’s a long time ago, but it’s interesting these issues have been going on so long,” Willmott said.

“There is a lot of humor and satire in the movie. The dialogue will be spoken in verse like the play ‘Lysistrata.’ It was disappointing that the city of Chicago immediately assumed the negative about the film and what the name would mean.”

This didn’t prevent Lee from recruiting a large cast of notable performers, including Samuel L. Jackson, John Cusack, Angela Bassett, Wesley Snipes, Jennifer Hudson, Nick Cannon and Dave Chappelle.

Principal photography concluded July 16. The film is expected to be released before the end of the year.

Willmott first crafted a version of the screenplay 13 years ago, around the time Lee (“Do the Right Thing,” “Inside Man”) became involved with “CSA” as a credited “presenter” of the film. The original title for “Chiraq” was “Gotta Give It Up!”

“Spike got to read the script at that time and really liked it,” Willmott said. “We went to every major studio. We had two readings with DreamWorks, where at the time Jennifer Lopez was going to play Lysistrata. And it just never happened.”

But last October, Willmott received a call from Lee asking whether the screenplay was still available. Lee proposed setting it in Chicago and calling it “Chiraq.”

In February, Lee hosted a reading in Los Angeles attended by reps from Amazon Studios. “Chiraq” is now slated to be Amazon’s first feature film release.

“The thing Spike and I have in common is, we’re both political junkies,” said Willmott, 56. “We both have strong opinions about things. The subject matter of the film spoke to him — and it’s very much Spike Lee subject matter.”

Willmott says their approach to updating the script became a back-and-forth strategy, with each man alternating rewrites.

“It was a fun, collaborative process,” said Willmott, who first met Lee as a graduate student while attending New York University.

As part of the story’s development, the pair interviewed many of the mothers of victims lost to gang violence.

“It’s mind-blowing how many people have been affected by violence,” Willmott said. “It’s disturbing. It’s mournful. It’s a life-altering experience when you get to meet these people up front and personal.”

Although “Chiraq” attempts to focus greater attention to the crisis of inner-city crime, Willmott hopes the film delves even further.

“The movie is not about the problem. The movie is about the solution,” Willmott said. “That’s the thing I like most about it.”

More than a decade ago, Willmott weathered criticism for how “CSA” took aim at the visible remnants of racism, particularly the Confederate flag. The filmmaker became a vocal opponent of the flag back when the majority of Americans weren’t exactly listening.

What a difference a few years have made.

“I got to see that flag up close when they showed ‘CSA’ in South Carolina years ago, and it was a frightening thing to see as an African-American,” he said. “The state has a black history recognition thing, but it said to me: ‘Even though we acknowledge black history, we still believe in slavery. We still believe in white supremacy.’”

Willmott added, “It’s unbelievable that governors were still trying to justify the flag until that horrible shooting incident (in June in a predominantly black church in Charleston, S.C.) — which we talk about in ‘Chiraq,’ by the way. That incident happened while we were filming, so we immediately wrote a scene connecting to that event.”

Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”

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