Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Bravo, Kevin Willmott!

I still say that Whoopi Goldberg should've listened to me and interviewed him on her radio show. In New York City, back in 2006, Whoopi Goldberg debuted in her own live weekday morning radio show called Wake Up with Whoopi. The Premiere Radio production aired in several cities across the country. When I had my own prime time weeknight celebrity talk show on VH1, called Watch Bobby Rivers, Whoopi was one of my first guests. She was promoting her 1988 film, CLARA'S HEART. She liked my work. Also, she noticed that I did the half-hour show without a TelePrompTer, without cue cards and without an earpiece. When she got her radio show, she wanted a Black person who could be a weekly contributor doing film reviews and other entertainment news. She contacted me and I got the job. I am still grateful to her for that gig. During that time, I saw a mockumentary that was so fiercely funny, so blistering and brilliant, that I had to know more about its maker. The writer and director was a professor of film at the University of Kansas. An African American talent, his name -- Kevin Willmott. I feel now as I did when I watched that DVD. His mockumentary, C.S.A.: THE CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA, should have received an Oscar nomination. The writing, the direction, the cinematography and the acting in it are that good.  The mockumentary is about alternate history. We see a modern day America, but an America as it would be had the Confederacy won the Civil War. We see this through the eyes of a British film crew shooting a documentary here in the USA for PBS television. The "documentary," the TV channels, commercials and all the station ID's are done as if we live in the Confederate States of America.  This mockumentary is ... well, imagine a Ken Burns-type project having been done by Dave Chappelle.
Kevin Willmott's knowledge of classic films made me gasp. The way he inverted D. W. Griffith's 1915 film, BIRTH OF A NATION, with Abraham Lincoln needing to flee via the Underground Railway was genius. The same applies to his look at a Hollywood film in the years soon after Hattie McDaniel won her Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 1939's GONE WITH THE WIND.

Hattie McDaniel was the first person nominated for an Oscar for playing a Black person. The third was Ethel Waters for playing the illiterate grandmother and domestic down South in 1949's PINKY, a race drama directed by Elia Kazan. The second person to get an Oscar nomination for playing a Black person was a white British actress named Flora Robson. Robson had played Queen Elizabeth in two historical dramas and she played the sad, old housekeeper who tells us the tragic love story of 1939's WUTHERING HEIGHTS. Warner Bros. covered Robson with dark make-up and slapped a pair of hoop earrings on her to have her play the stern Haitian maid to Ingrid Bergman's character in the romantic costume drama, SARATOGA TRUNK, a 1945 film co-starring Gary Cooper.

Flora Robson got a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for playing the dark Haitian maid. Kevin Willmott obviously is aware of that fact when you see a "clip" from a 1940s classic in his mockumentary. Click onto the link for a look at the mockumentary's trailer:

The way Willmott skewers modern-day racism is hilarious, politically incorrect and probably more relevant today than when it was released in 2004. I watched it then contacted Willmott via email. I introduced myself, told him I worked on-air with Whoopi Goldberg and wanted to pitch him enthusiastically to her. I wanted her to do a phone interview with him about C.S.A.: THE CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA if he was interested. He absolutely was. I pitched him to Whoopi. I'd given her a DVD of the mockumentary. Unfortunately and surprisingly, she was not interested. I stressed that I felt Willmott would move on to even bigger work. Whoopi just wasn't interested. I got back to Kevin Willmott with the disappointing news. He was extremely gracious to me for pitching him. A real gent, that Kevin Willmott. And a real talent. He did, indeed, move on to even bigger work.

Kevin Willmott and Spike Lee won Oscars for their adapted screenplay to 2018's BlacKkKlansman. The film was a nominee for Best Picture.
The current collaboration, DA 5 BLOODS, is now on Netflix. It's received some mighty fine reviews and Oscar buzz for actor Delroy Lindo's performance. Here's a trailer.

This week came the news that Kevin Willmott is at work on a screenplay for a biopic on the late tennis great, Arthur Ashe. Ashe won the U.S. Open during the racially turbulent Civil Rights era of the 1960s. He was an activist for Civil Rights and AIDS awareness. He succumbed to AIDS-related pneumonia in 1993. He'd retired from tennis in 1980. The film has the full support of the Arthur Ashe estate. Bravo, Kevin Willmott!

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