Kevin Willmott is a writer, filmmaker and professor at KU, as well as the co-writer of the latest Spike Lee film, “Chi-Raq.” The film is an adaptation of the ancient Greek play “Lysistrata,” and tells the fictional story of a sex strike held by the girlfriends and wives of Chicago gangsters in an attempt to end the epidemic of gang and gun violence that wracks the South Side of the city. I spoke to Willmott about his role in writing the“Chi-Raq” script as well as his thoughts about the movie.
When did you initially make the idea of connecting gun and gang violence in Chicago with the Greek play “Lysistrata”?
I was in the theater when I was in undergrad and at that time it really struck me how the language of play really lent itself to rhyme and rap, African American traditions and all of that. That idea kind of stayed with me for a long time, and eventually I wrote the script. It was called “Gotta Give it Up” at that time, and then Spike got to read it and really liked it a lot, so we tried to get it made. It didn’t quite happen though, that was about 13 years ago. Then he came to me a couple years ago and said, “Do you still have the script?” That’s when it became set in Chicago. We called it “Chi-Raq” and really embraced all the problems that Chicago’s been having.
On that note, a lot of the film’s dialogue is set in rhyme. How did you come to that decision?
That was a choice I made, mainly because of the play “Lysistrata.” The play is written in verse, and the verse style of play has a lot of African American connections and traditions. Later on, I found out that there have been several major all-black productions of “Lysistrata,” one with Sidney Poitier that was a big break for him in his career, so the play has been part of African American traditions. That was part of what Spike really liked about it as well.
You’re dealing with some serious subject matter, but the film has a lot of humor in it, a lot of moments where you break the fourth wall. I’m thinking of the scenes where the film freezes and Samuel L. Jackson narrates to the camera in verse.
Well you know, that’s been a style of film for a very long time. Even in old Bob Hope movies they would turn and talk to the camera at times, break the fourth wall as they call it. That was something that really lent itself well to the story to me. It allowed us to kind of embrace the more Dolemite kind of character that talks a lot of trash and really connects to the overall verse in the film. Before hip-hop there were rhymes, and that’s always been huge in the black tradition. And it’s that tradition that really creates hip-hop. That’s what I really liked about trying to pull something off like that.
The film makes a lot of pretty direct political arguments about issues like gun control, mass incarceration and the NRA. How do you see the role of art and film in making social commentary?
Well that’s kind of the only kind of movie I make. (Laughter.) The best film is film that’s about something and challenges you in serious ways. And that’s what the film likes to do. It takes on, in my opinion, some of the villains of American life. Specifically, the gun violence epidemic in America. Obviously, Chicago’s the poster child of this, but it’s a problem all over the country.
It’s a problem in Kansas City. Look at how many children have died from gunshot wounds this last year. It’s a huge problem, and it’s very difficult to find any remedies to it. In fact it seems to be going the other way. More and more guns are being introduced in more aspects of our society. Now they’re talking about having guns on campus where I teach, at KU, and that’s just insane. So you know, in many ways the film has a big element of agitation propaganda to address this problem. Which I think is a legitimate form of art.
Right, it seems like in many ways the “villains” of the film are really the institutional figures like the Mayor and the General rather than just the gangs on the street level.
Yeah, and the choice of that is, the people that do the actual shooting, are often times, I don’t want to say victims, but in many ways they’re kind of enslaved by the policies of government and government corruption. It’s hard to find a job in the ghetto, it’s hard to find a job in the hood. There’s not even grocery stores in the hood. In Chicago particularly, but also in Kansas City, it’s a tale of two cities.
There’s the world on the east side of Troost, and then there’s the other world. And there’s limited resources in that segregated world, and it creates a whole bunch of problems. Now, I’m not saying people don’t have responsibility. I think the film makes the very clear. But they’re not the NRA bringing those guns into the community, and they’re not the policy makers that keep money and job programs from entering into those neighborhoods to employ people so they have an alternative to the underground economy. That’s a big part of it, but at the end of the film, with the characters in the Chi-Raq area specifically, it’s all about demanding personal responsibility, and I think that part of it is really clear.
You got some criticism by some groups in Chicago, including Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, over the title of the film and the way it portrayed the city. What do you think is the reasoning behind that?
Well yeah, I thought that was a really weak response. What’s more important, the image of something or the reality of something? The mayor really missed an opportunity to take on the problem. Instead he’s worried about what Spike’s calling the film, rather than the huge epidemic of gun violence in the city, and that kind of said it all.