On Thursday evening, Kevin Willmott, Oscar-winning screenwriter and professor of film at the University of Kansas shared his personal background and the events leading up to his work on “BlacKkKlansman.” Willmott’s lecture was the keynote address for Kansas State’s engagement symposium “Art of Democracy.”
Willmott said growing up in Junction City is still part of who he is today and played a role in his path to becoming a filmmaker.
“Junction City was called Junk Town because it was so multicultural,” Willmott said. “Because it was so diverse, because it was so inter-racial they didn’t even use the word diversity back in the ’70s.”
This was especially the case on the block he grew up on. His next-door neighbors were white, Willmott said. Across the street lived a black and Japanese family. Beyond that there were black neighbors, more white neighbors, a Korean family and the list goes on.
“And that’s within one block in a small town in Kansas of 20,000 people,” Willmott said.
Willmott also recalled witnessing a riot that took place at his high school.
“Riots happen because of misunderstandings,” Willmott said. “It was frustrating to see my friends get kicked out of school.”
The frustrations kept building up inside, he said, until he fought back. After pulling fire alarms and setting off firecrackers in the cafeteria, he was kicked out of school.
He got back into a new school and found a new role model, named Pastor Franklin, who encouraged his dreams and encouraged him to go to college. He went to Marymount College of Kansas in Salina, where he did plays and wrote his first film.
“If I didn’t get thrown out of school then I probably wouldn’t be a film writer or an Oscar winner,” Willmott said.
His experience lead to a phone call from movie director Spike Lee.
“With BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee, director, approached me and Jordan Peele, producer, gave him a call and so he said I want you to direct this film, but the script needs a lot of work,” Willmott said. “So, Spike called me, and we met Jordan in LA and it happened really fast.”
Willmott said his experience growing up in Junction City gave him the experience he needed when working on the film.
“Junction City was a great, great, great place to grow up and it was one of the most rare places that really kind of, you know, took the bad part of what America has given us,” Willmott said. “And we took it and did something great with it, and we taught ourselves to love ourselves in our own way. And our white friends learned from that. And our black friends learned from that. And all the other races that we grew up with learned from that. And in those neighborhoods, we all learned from that. And that’s the thing that will make America great again.”