Screenwriter and film professor Kevin Willmott won an Oscar in 2019, and two days later, he was teaching a class back at the University of Kansas. Now, his most recent film — "Da 5 Bloods," directed by Spike Lee — is set to premiere on Netflix on Friday, June 12.
Willmott was born in Junction City and now lives in Lawrence, where he teaches film and media studies at the University. Even as a successful filmmaker with bigger film markets available to him, Willmott has stayed home.
Kevin Willmott won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for his work on "BlacKkKlansman." With no hesitation, he brought back his award to the University of Kansas Film and Media Studies Department to share his success.
“The fact I grew up in Kansas is a big thing for me,” Willmott said. “It’s left its mark. People move away to live in New York, or L.A. or Chicago, but you still care about home.”
Willmott said Kansas lets him relax and balance his crazy work schedule that jumps from teaching, to writing, to meeting with industry professionals.
“I love traveling, and I love visiting those places, and I love going there to do work,” Willmott said, “But I like coming home where life’s a lot easier.”
The University helps with that too. It’s always supported Willmott’s film career, understanding his split work commitment, which has only reinforced his desire to stay in Kansas.
“Lawrence has become a part of my history that I really love,” he said.
When he returned from college after receiving a master’s degree at New York University, Willmott stayed in Junction City.
But before he left, he said the city was wrought with racism.
“Then I got out of college, in 1984, and it was still that way,” he said. “It was still segregated, and I felt like somebody needed to say something.”
Willmott said he spent the next five years campaigning against discrimination there, working to improve the lives of underprivileged members of the community.
“I got deeply involved,” he said. “You pay personally [for that] in a small town. There’s very little protection in that world.”
Willmott has continued his activism 30 years later, as several of his film projects feature activism.
“BlacKkKlansman,” the Oscar-winning film which Wilmott contributed to, told the story of how the first black police officer in Colorado Springs successfully infiltrated and exposed the Ku Klux Klan. Willmott’s upcoming project, “No Place Like Home,” focuses on the struggles of LGBTQ+ people in Kansas.
In 2017, Willmott taught classes in a bulletproof vest to protest the carrying of concealed weapons on campus.
“I got death threats,” he said. “But that’s one of the reasons you step out and do it. Those people want to make sure you keep your mouth shut. That’s one of the reasons why, if you feel like you can, you should step out and say something.”
Michael Baskett, chair of the department of film and media studies, said Willmott’s passion for activism is what makes his teaching so effective.
“Kevin is passionate about what he believes in and also committed to doing something about it,” Baskett said. “Students see him teach passionately about issues in class, but I think what really inspires them is what Kevin actually does outside of class.”
Willmott said he hopes his passion and dedication become part of the lesson.
“That’s definitely the goal,” Willmott said. “I’d like to believe that students can feel and hear and see that — that we’re trying to share something that’s truly important to us. We’re hoping that it becomes important to them too. That’s what teaching is all about.”