Kevin Willmott, one of the screenwriters for the award-winning movie BlacKkKlansman, visited the University of Denver last week for a Q&A following a showing of the film. Willmott shared his perspective on his experience with the movie, as well as personal input on issues it raises.
Based on Ron Stallworth’s memoir from 2014, the film is set in the early 1970s in Colorado Springs. It tells the story of Stallworth’s experience as the first black detective to work for the Colorado Springs Police Department. He sets out to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. Along with his co-workers, he arranges to take down the radical hate group.
Director Spike Lee, Willmott, and other contributors wanted to convey the message that hate groups are not made of the stereotypical persona.
“It’s easy to say they’re crazy or stupid, but your neighbor could be involved in one of these groups, and you don’t know anything about it,” said Willmott. “I think the film was a wake-up call for Americans to realize this.”
The film premiered and won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival on May 14, 2018. It was later released in theaters in the U.S. on Aug. 10, 2018, which happened to be the first anniversary of Unite the Right rally. The film soon became very popular, receiving several award nominations. It won an Academy Award for Best Writing Adapted Screenplay at the 2019 Oscars, following the BAFTA award for Best Screenplay. In addition, the American Film Institute selected it as one of the top 10 films of 2018.
As the Oscars approached, Willmott recalled trying to avoid talking about the possibility of being nominated with his colleagues due to superstitious beliefs. The team knew that their chances of a nomination had increased after winning the BAFTA award.
“If you start talking about it, you start to think it just might not happen. Spike had a little thing where he’d turn around three times, because it was like this superstitious thing,” said Willmott. “I tried not to think about it.”
Willmott concluded that the success of the film was directly related to the fact that the U.S. currently has a president that is racist. The amount of hate groups in the U.S. has increased since President Trump’s election. Willmott believes that Trump has “opened the door to hate,” one that is difficult to close again.
According to Willmott, Trump was elected because people do not want to talk about certain issues, such as racism — it makes people feel uncomfortable. However, art gives people the opportunity to talk about it.
“The definition of art is discomfort,” said Willmott.
BlacKkKlansman is a work of art that brought discomfort and shed light about a subject that many people avoid discussing. Willmott aspires to see more films like that being produced in the future. The important aspect of a film, according to him, is to make it universal by incorporating messages that speak upon society in ways that prompt people to reflect.
“We’re all Colorado Springs in that sense,” Willmott said.