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‘It gives meaning to your life,’ filmmaker Kevin Willmott says of the work during virtual talk

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When Kevin Willmott was in fifth grade, a comic book gave him his first lesson in Black history.

The illustrated pages of “Negro Americans – The Early Years” told the stories of Daniel Hale Williams, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and more. They were lessons that Willmott said he didn’t realize he wasn’t learning in school up to that point. 

On reflection during a virtual talk, he said seeing those lessons entwined with entertainment in the comic helped him make the connection of sharing history with others through storytelling. 

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The Watkins Museum of History hosted “Film and Community: An Online Talk with Kevin Willmott” Monday evening. The Academy Award-winning professor of film and media studies at the University of Kansas shared more about his roots in the Sunflower State and why he came back here to make his first film. 

Willmott’s career now includes films such as “C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America,” “Chi-Raq,” “BlacKkKlansman,” “Da 5 Bloods” and “The 24th,” among many others. Movie posters on the wall behind him illustrated some of his points as he spoke. 

But after he graduated from New York University and started his career there with “Ninth Street” — a screenplay about the red light district in his hometown of Junction City — he realized “that’s a Kansas thing; they don’t know what that’s all about.” 

So he returned, and he created a community of filmmakers who supported what he wanted to do, he said. And he learned that he can create art as a way to fight the problem of racism. 

Will Haynes (left), director of engagement and learning for the Watkins Museum of History, asks a question of filmmaker Kevin Willmott during a virtual event Monday. (Screenshot)

“For me, movies have always been a way to fight the problem,” he said. 

Though he’s worked in Hollywood, mainly as a writer, he said he’s an independent filmmaker when it comes to the movies he likes to make. His work incorporates the civil rights movement and exposes chapters of history that some people would prefer to sweep under the rug. 

“The bigger machine of studios making movies, you know, they’re just not really interested in bettering American society and the world — they’re interested in making dollars,” he said, laughing. “So you have to kind of do that more on your own.”

He said without the film community in Lawrence and Kansas City, he couldn’t get his films done. 

“We did these as a labor of love because people liked the script and they wanted to make the film,” he said. 

“… The fun thing about making movies out here is I’m making them with my friends, and I’m expressing myself. I’m saying the things that I want to say about the world and the things that are important to me, and I’m not censored by some yahoo that is thinking about a dollar. I get final cut.”

He said he tells his students that if they’re not making films, producing things and doing the writing, they can’t get better at it. And he said it doesn’t matter how well your movie does or how many people see it. 

“It only matters that it exists. It matters that you shared it with the world,” he said. “It matters that you got to do the thing that you are trying to do. It gives meaning to your life, and it gives meaning to the lives of the people around you. And that, to me, is the beauty of making movies around here, and I hope to continue that.”

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A member of the virtual audience asked Willmott how he thinks about his 2004 film, “C.S.A.,” in today’s context, nearly two decades later. The film is through the eyes of a documentary, looking at the history of an America where the south won the Civil War. 

“For me, making this film, I learned that the south did win,” Willmott said. 

He cited Lawrence as an example, and its celebration of the “Free State” part of its history.

“It’s a beautiful part of our history,” he said. But even after the north won the Civil War, KU was segregated; Lawrence was segregated. It was the Brown v. Topeka Board of Education case that eventually integrated schools. 

“So the south taught the north how to live; we didn’t teach the south how to live. We didn’t teach the south how to live until the Civil Rights Movement.”

Now, he said, we see “the new C.S.A., with Donald Trump.”

“We’ve been trying to put hate and white supremacy and racism and sexism and homophobia and all the bad things in the world in this box,” Willmott said. “Two hundred years, people have been fighting … to put this stuff in the box, this Pandora’s box. And it’s a struggle because the bad guys always come in and they want to open that box back up.”

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For a while, after the election of Barack Obama, Willmott said people felt like it was a done deal, and it was all in the box with the lid shut. But when Trump showed up, he let it all out again. 

“And now it’s OK to be racist again — I mean, publicly,” Willmott said. “You can be publicly racist, because we had a president that’s publicly racist.” 

“… The worst thing about it is that this thing now is, it’s bigger than him. He’s now an idea,” Willmott continued. “It doesn’t matter what happens to him anymore. … Whether he goes to jail or not, the idea that he has shared with the world, the opening of this box, is something that the other people that believe in him, have now embraced.” 

And putting it back in the box once again is the challenge that Americans and democracy face now, he said. 

“C.S.A.” was a protest piece. “But there it is, and here we are,” Willmott said. 

Willmott’s talk was connected with the Watkins exhibit Confronting the Past: The Douglas County Community Remembrance Project and the Johnson County Museum exhibit REDLINED: Cities, Suburbs, and Segregation. Hear more from Willmott during the Free State Festival, and an event set for April 13.

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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com or 785-422-6363. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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