Tuesday, December 08, 2015

A quick glance at the films of Kevin Willmott (after you've watched CHI-RAQ and want more...)

This looks to be the breakout year for filmmaker Kevin Willmott - after 6 feature films made in KS and gaining some critical recognition, he'll be getting some mainstream attention due to the release of Spike Lee's CHI-RAQ, which was originally pitched years earlier and fell to the side, until Lee resurrected the script and it was retooled to reflect the Chicago setting.

CHI-RAQ Trailer from 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks on Vimeo.

 With the movie out this past weekend (although in only ONE theater in the KC Metro area -- and then in a suburban multiplex to which I can only add - REALLY?) and posed to be a successful pioneer in Amazon Studios' experiment, it can only help in bringing awareness to the rest of Kevin's work as writer/director.


Probably Willmott's best known film to audiences - it had major distribution by IFC Films (which meant it did play in arthouse theaters in major cities), was 'presented' by Spike Lee who signed on as Executive Producer, although he had no direct involvement during the production of the film... which didn't matter at all to internet trolls and online racists.

Also, the subject matter of the film hasn't dated at all, as witness the bruhaha over the confederate flag earlier this year. One note regarding satire - sometimes people don't get it, as the Dalton School in NYC proved last year; and why Lee goes to such lengths as to leading off his film BAMBOOZLED with a definition of the term, and making sure Chi-raq is understood as satire. As the saying goes, "Sometimes ya gotta laugh - otherwise I'd be screaming."

Another Willmott satire on the way is DESTINATION: PLANET NEGRO!

Destination Planet Negro Official Trailer from Candy Factory Films on Vimeo.

The humor is slightly broader - it's also a genre parody of the sci-fi films of the 50's, but the underlying serious commentary on the state of race relations in the contemporary U.S.A. ensures the film still has a stinging slap even as one is in the throes of laughter. DPN has been playing in festivals for the past year and 1/2 and is scheduled soon for release from Candy Factory Films.

His most recent film is JAYHAWKERS:

Jayhawkers Trailer from Through A Glass Productions on Vimeo.

Set in the mid-50's, it centers on the time period when KU Basketball coach Phog Allen recruited a young Wilt Chamberlain to play basketball for the university and its aftereffects in integrating Lawrence, KS and KU. Shot in black and white and in a docudrama style, JAYHAWKERS isn't merely a biopic - Wilt Chamberlain is the core element, but there's other things going on - bigotry and the attempts to overcome it; celebrity and it's usefulness to suspend bigotry but how it ultimately becomes a trap; and lots and lots of jazz. Former KU basketball player Justin Wesley is phenomenal as Wilt Chamberlain; Kip Niven, Jay Karnes, Blake Robbins and EMPIRE's Trai Byers round out the main roles. There's no main distributor for the film yet, but you can order a DVD and/or Blu-Ray directly from the filmmakers.

If you liked these, and are inclined to do some digging, the rest of Willmott's CV is pretty good as well...

THE ONLY GOOD INDIAN, written by Thomas Carmody, takes place at the beginning 20th Century, as the Western Frontier has, for the most part, been 'tamed', mainly by subjugating many of the Native Americans who resided there. One of the ways of accomplishing this was by taking the children of Native Americans and forcibly relocating them to boarding schools to be 'civilized'. TOGI is the story of one of these children, rechristened 'Charlie', who escapes one such school to reunite with his parents, only to be pursued by a bounty hunter, also a Native-American.

Indian makes great use of the Kansas landscapes, as well as good performances from Wes Studi and newcomer Winter Fox Frank, and J. Kenneth Campbell and nice character bits from supporting actors, some who could be called Willmott's Ensemble Group - you'll see them from film to film.
TOGI was featured on the Encore Networks for a few years, then disappeared. There was a DVD release, but again, you need to purchase it from the filmmakers.

THE BATTLE FOR BUNKER HILL was the followup film after C.S.A., but is probably the hardest film to locate, due to poor distribution and a title change that, if one Googles it, will bring up at least several thousand OTHER films with a similar title, only about the Revolutionary War battle. Set in Bunker Hill, KS, the film is about Peter Salem, the stranger who comes to town to settle some personal business, when an occurrence takes place that isolates the town from the rest of the world. As everyone attempts to make some kind of sense out of events, paranoia and suspicion grow and lines are drawn. Starring James McDaniel and the late Saeed Jaffrey, as well as actors Kevin Geer, Laura Kirk, Scott Allegrucci and Blake Robbins, Bunker Hill was intended as a post 9-11 allegory filtered through a 'Twilight Zone'-type premise; most of its thunder was appropriated by the television series JERICHO which was also made at the same time. It appears to have disappeared from its streaming platforms for the time being, and no home video distribution - although DVDs were available for time directly from the filmmakers. If you're interested enough to order some of the other films, you might inquire about BUNKER HILL...

Ninth Street (1999) ~ Trailer by FilmGorillas

Finally, there's the first film - NINTH STREET - which Willmott co-directed with Tim Rebman and which was based on his play about growing up in Junction City, KS. As with most first films, it's a bit rough around the edges - it doesn't completely transcend its stage origins - but its virtues, like performances from Kaycee Moore (KILLER OF SHEEP, DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST), Queen Bey, Isaac Hayes (!) and Martin Sheen in what amounts to an extended cameo, outweigh its flaws.
Worth looking for a copy, which isn't as hard as it may appear to be.

There's quite a bit to discover; with lots of discussion about the need for diverse voices in film, Willmott has been one of the few who have been fortunate enough to be able to produce a continuing body of work, mainly outside of the Hollywood system - all of his films have been made in Kansas and with independent financing, making him one of the important independent Black filmmakers in the past decade.

Obviously, my objectivity will come into question, since I've been fortunate enough to be part of the production crew working with since BUNKER HILL... now coming up on a decade since principal shooting. I think the facts - 6 features over the past 20 years (actually 7 counting THE ASSOCIATION, coming in 2016), with various subjects, in various genres - speak for themselves.