Kevin Willmott is one of the most prolific independent writers and filmmakers working today. His writings and films focus on the concept of our “Living History” –how the history of the past can shape our lives, outlooks and opinions of other peoples and cultures today.
Willmott’s most critically acclaimed feature film, C.S.A: Confederate States Of America, is about America, had the South won the Civil War. After its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, IFC Films purchased the film for domestic theatrical distribution. CSA was released theatrically in the U.S. by IFC and was distributed in several foreign countries.
The Only Good Indian, starring Wes Studi (Avatar, Last of the Mohicans), J. Kenneth Campbell (Bulworth, Yulee’s Gold) and newcomer Winter Fox Frank, which premiered at The Sundance Film Festival, is set in Kansas during the early 1900s, and tells the story of a teen-aged Native American boy is taken from his family and forced to attend a distant Indian "training" school to assimilate into White society. When he escapes to return to his family, Sam Franklin, a bounty hunter of Cherokee descent, is hired to find and return him to the institution.
Willmott’s other films include The Battle for Bunker Hill, starring NYPD Blue’s James McDaniel, Saeed Jaffrey (Gandhi), Laura Kirk (Lisa Picard is Famous), Kevin Geer (American Gangster) and Blake Robbins (Oz, The Office) and Ninth Street, an independent feature film starring Martin Sheen and Isaac Hayes, was written, produced and co-directed by Willmott. He also played the role of “Huddie” one of the films main characters.
For television, Willmott co-wrote with Mitch Brian House Of Getty and The 70’s, both mini-series for NBC. THE 70’s aired on ABC in May of 2000. In 2005, he produced High-Tech Lincoln, a special which premiered on The History Channel.
As a screenwriter, Willmott co-wrote Shields Green And The Gospel Of John Brown with Mitch Brian. The script was purchased by Chris Columbus’ 1492 Productions for 20th Century Fox. He has also co-wrote Civilized Tribes for producer Robert Lawrence and 20th Century Fox. Producer and director Oliver Stone hired him to co-write Little Brown Brothers, about the Philippine Insurrection and to adapt the book Marching To Valhalla by Michael Blake. Willmott also adapted The Watsons Go To Birmingham for CBS, Columbia Tri-Star and Executive Producer Whoopi Goldberg. Willmott recently adapted and directed a stage version of The Watsons Go To Birmingham in New York and at Kansas City’s Coterie Theater.
The play T-Money And Wolf, written with Ric Averill, dealing with the holocaust and contemporary gang violence, was selected as part of the New Vision/New Voices series produced by the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. The play is published by Dramatic Publishing.
Willmott directed the premiere performances of Now Let Me Fly, a new play by Marcia Cebulska commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision to segregate public schools. The performances featured actors James McDaniel (NYPD Blue), Roger Aaron Brown (The District) and Yolanda King, and musical performers Queen Bey and Kelley Hunt.
Willmott grew up in Junction City, Kansas and attended Marymount College receiving his BA in Drama. After graduation, he returned home, working as a peace and civil rights activist, fighting for the rights of the poor, creating two Catholic Worker shelters for the homeless and forcing the integration of several long standing segregated institutions. He attended graduate studies at New York University, Tisch School of the Arts, receiving several writing awards and his M.F.A. in Dramatic Writing.
Willmott is an Associate Professor in the Film Studies Department of Kansas University.
HEARD: There’s a term associated with you: “community filmmaking,” which involves making the locations of your films--eastern Kansas, in your case--an integral part of the production process, in part by hiring local actors and crews. How did that concept evolve?
WILLMOTT: From the time I first started writing scripts, I’ve relied on support from communities of local people who make everything possible, from actors to set designers to wardrobe specialists. When you deal with low-budget period films like we’ve made, this a way of producing your film on a budget while really becoming part of a community. We spend money in various Kansas towns when we shoot in them, so it becomes a total give-and-take. And I especially enjoy finding people who have talent and skills and end up helping in so many different, amazing ways.
HEARD: You grew up in the 1960s, in a community that most people outside of Kansas may not know about: Junction City, home to Fort Riley and--as you show in your first feature film, Ninth Street--a vibrant African-American population. How did your experiences there shape you?
WILLMOTT: The neighborhood I lived in growing up is the best example of Junction City’s uniqueness. In my block, our neighbor next door was a white family, and across the street was a black-and-Japanese family, and next to them was a black-and-German family, and so on. It was totally integrated, thoroughly diverse. In a setting like that, the whole issue of race, on a personal level, became almost non-existent. But on a system level, you were totally defined by race, and the neighborhood was looked on by the city as a bit of an embarrassment. Part of Junction City’s negative reputation among outsiders came from the fact that it was so interracial. That’s the beauty of the place--and, in the way the city reacted, the negative of it.
HEARD: When did you become aware of the broader patterns of racism that shaped American society back then?
WILLMOTT: It’s funny, but I remember going to kindergarten and this little girl called me a nigger. (Laughs.) I didn’t know what that was until I came home, told my mother, and asked, What is that? And she said, “Just call her a redneck peckerwood.” I didn’t really know I was black until Dr. King got shot in 1968. My mother had a friend over, the news flashed across the TV screen, and my mother went out on the porch and started screaming. I was a current-events kid, and in school the next day I said, “Dr. Martin Luther King was killed last night.” And the teacher said, “We won’t be talking about that.” That had a big effect on me: When somebody tells you not to talk about something, you of course want to talk about it. That’s when I started to come into my blackness, and to be proud of it.
HEARD: One of your major themes is our society’s tendency to paper over unpleasant truths, both current and historical, and to live by comforting myths. In your film CSA, there’s a powerful satirical twist. You take Southern myths about the causes of the Civil War--for example, that the real problem was northern aggression, not slavery--and you turn them around. In the film, the myths are the reality, because the Confederates win, and they write the history books.
WILLMOTT: The point of the whole “what if” technique is this: By telling the false story, you end up telling the real story. By flipping it, and by showing belief in the myth for all its ridiculousness, you end up telling the truth. In CSA, I was trying to tell the story from the victim’s point of view, the African-American point of view. By talking about the big elephant in the room that we don’t want to talk about--slavery--we can finally expose it for what it is. That’s important, because we work really hard in this country to not talk about what’s really going on.
HEARD: In your most recent film, The Only Good Indian, the character Sam Franklin--a Cherokee Indian who says he’s trying to “out-White Man the White Man”--has become a bounty hunter who chases down kids who escape from federal Indian schools. At one point he says, “Soon, my story will become the truth.” Those words sounded like they had a larger meaning, something that transcends that specific moment in the drama. What were you getting at?
WILLMOTT: That line touches on what I like to call the “living history” of things. Sam sees himself as a white man, as part of the white society that gets to decide what counts as truth. In the movie, his intention is to fool a local sheriff into believing a false account of self-defense slayings that both he and the boy took part in. Sam knows that, as an assimilated Indian, he can walk into the sheriff’s office and blame everything on the boy, and he’ll be believed, because Sam has the living history of America behind him, which says: The boy, as an Indian, is wrong. I, as an assimilated Indian, am right. That’s part of what we’re dealing with today. One remnant of that living history is the racial divide that still exists in this country. It’s the history that we still have conflict over, that makes white people scared of black people when they see them, and that makes black people scared of white people when we see them. It’s that living thing that follows us wherever we go.
HEARD: There’s also the character Henry McCoy, an old Indian fighter who, like Sam, took part in the Sand Creek Massacre, the 1864 mass killing of non-combatant tribal people in southeastern Colorado by U.S. troops. McCoy appears to be going insane with guilt over his past misdeeds, but ultimately he’s not able to do the right thing in the present. Are you saying something there about the nature of historical guilt?
WILLMOTT: Yes. We as Americans have not been able to complete that process. Part of us feels guilty about the past, part of us wants to hold onto it and think it’s OK. Part of us feels pain and psychological damage from it, like McCoy does in the film. And there’s part of us that says, Hey, I’m right, and I always was right, and I can still carry on with my righteousness today. McCoy is a great example of that challenge, of a character who would like to put the pieces together, and who really needs to put them together to heal and live. But there’s nothing in his experience, or in society, that can help him do it.
HEARD: In The Battle for Bunker Hill--which concerns a Kansas town where power and communication mysteriously vanish, bringing out the best and worst behavior among individual citizens--there’s real tension about whether good or bad will end up prevailing. Along those lines, are you optimistic or pessimistic about people’s ability to change American society for the better?
WILLMOTT: I’m mainly optimistic, but in an odd way. I’m optimistic by being pessimistic. The more I deal with the ongoing struggle of things, the more optimistic I become. It’s the avoidance of the problem that makes me depressed and pessimistic. And that avoidance, to me, is the American experience. It’s a constant fight, and if you’re not in that fight, then you don’t know the American story. I don’t get depressed about how bad things are. I get frustrated. But I’m always hoping that the frustration leads me to anger, which leads me to action, which leads me to want to make things better. I hope the movies I create will help do that. When I grew up, many of the movies that influenced me were the so-called “problem pictures,” which dealt with themes like racism and class prejudice. As I often say, the problem pictures went away, but the problems didn’t. I think those movies made me a better person, and their tradition taught me that you should be optimistic, because things really can change.
Alex Heard is the author of The Eyes of Willie McGee, a nonfiction account of an interracial rape case in Mississippi that became an internationally celebrated cause in the years following World War II.
Dr. King and the Tea Party - Originally Published Wednesday March 2, 2011 - www.truth-out.org