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'BlacKkKlansman' Co-Writer on Spike Lee's Vision, Living in a "Very Racist Time" and His Day Job as a Professor

Monday, August 6, 2018

Over the phone on a recent morning, BlacKkKlansman co-writer Kevin Willmott hears a mention of collaborator Spike Lee. Immediately, his typically booming voice softens in awe. Kansas native Willmott has worked with Lee several times — Willmott is currently working on his next project with the recent Cannes Grand Prix winner — but his enthusiasm about the collaboration is to this day unparalleled. 

“It’s a beautiful experience,” Willmott told The Hollywood Reporter via phone from his home in Lawrence, Kansas

Willmott, 59, most recently worked with Lee on the upcoming Aug. 10 release of BlacKkKlansman, a story rooted in a 1970s reality where an African-American becomes a detective for the first time in the Colorado Springs Police Department’s history. The lead Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington in the film) goes on to an undercover operation where he finds his way into the ranks of the KKK with help of a fellow white cop, played in the film by Adam Driver.

Lee’s connection to BlacKkKlansman has been documented, but Willmott’s was a little less clear. In 2017, Lee was contacted by Get Out director Jordan Peele, who had been working with producer Jason Blum to get an adaptation going of the 2014 novel by Ron Stallworth, the very man depicted in the film infiltrating the KKK by becoming friends with David Duke, over the phone. Lee was tapped by Peele for the director role. And Lee, knowing Willmott after working together on Amazon Studios' Chi-Raq, knew just whom to call.

Willmott has plenty to juggle aside from his work with Lee. Not only is he currently working on a play to premiere at the Coterie Theater in Kansas City this fall based on the college life of Martin Luther King Jr., but he’s also a professor at the University of Kansas’ film department.

To fulfill his duties as a professor and creator, Willmott says he gets up almost every day at 5:30 in the morning to write in his home office. "It seems like I’m very clear in the morning," he said of his writing process.

What’s clear to Willmott any time of the day is that BlacKkKlansman will offer audiences with a dose of reality, especially after hate groups like the KKK have resurfaced into the mainstream. Willmott actually remembers in 1981 getting a letter from Klu Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke himself. Willmott was at Marymount College studying theater in Salina, Kan. He was president of the student body at the time.

When he got the curious letter, he realized it was from someone that was the head of the NAAWP (National Association for the Advancement of White People) looking to speak on campus.

“What he was doing then was making the transition from the hood and sheets of the Klan to really being a political figure. To be mainstream," Willmott said.

This frightening transition into the mainstream is at the heart of BlacKkKlansman, according to Willmott.  Read more

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