Kevin Willmott: ‘The 24th’

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Kevin Willmott Photo by Tallgrass Film Festival.

This week, Elvis Mitchell sits down with Oscar-winning screenwriter Kevin Willmott to talk about his newest film, which he also directed, ‘The 24th.’ The film is about the Houston Riot of 1917 in which members of the all-Black 24th United States Infantry Regiment rebelled against the abusive Houston police. Willmott won the Academy Award for best adapted screenplay of ‘BlacKkKlansman,’ which he co-wrote with Spike Lee. 

Transcript below:

KCRW: Welcome to the Home Edition of The Treatment. I'm Elvis Mitchell. Since my guest, writer-director Kevin Willmott, was last here with his film 'CSA: Confederate States of America,' still one of my bets for one of the best films of this century so far, he's gone on to prove that early promise by becoming an Academy Award winner for his latest collaboration or second to last collaboration with Spike Lee 'Black KKKlansmen' of last year. My guest is Kevin Willmott, his newest film is 'The 24th.' Kevin, congratulations. Thank you for dropping by. 

Kevin Willmott: My pleasure, brother, always great to talk to you.

KCRW: Great to talk to you, too. This new film 'The 24th:' let's just give a little context and say that in the year this movie takes place, there were five different race riots and probably on the average, a race riot every other year, up until that point, and I just got to wonder if that was one of the things that made you think this is something worth doing, because we think of race riots as being something from the 60s and kind of the post-automotive revolution and a big city thing, and that wasn't always the case, was it?

Willmott: No, no, not at all. I think that's a big misnomer that Americans need to know a lot more about to understand the racial climate we all kind of still live in today. I mean, that period between 1880 or so, and almost 1930, race riots were a common affair. And I think it's that period that defines our life today, probably more than even slavery does, in many ways. Because the thing I think that's important to remember about slavery is that African Americans were worth a lot of money. And that's why the South didn't want to give up slavery. But when slavery ends, then black life, as we say now, didn't matter. And that's when you saw these race riots. And that's when the beginning of the problem with African Americans in policing begins. And that's, I think, almost a hidden history.

 I mean, it's a very horrific period from 1880 or so to almost 1930 and lynching and horrible, horrible crimes are commonplace in cities all through the north and the south. And that's a period that we try to deal with in the film.

KCRW: I think what's really interesting about this film too, is that it shows that the history of black awareness, really dovetails into that period where you can't be a black person with some education, with the ability to read and having some sense of your worth, as you're saying, and not be upset about the kind of brutality that was commonplace. And, again, to your point, the misconception or misperception is that black people didn't really know how to stand up until the 60s or the 50s with the civil rights movement, and that's just not true. The fact is that there just wasn't the kind of coalition that we tend to think of now, was there?

Willmott: That's exactly right. And, you got to remember, it was especially tough then, you know, as Dr. King and Malcolm X, and all of them kind of acknowledged, black folks were outnumbered. And so if you were going to get into a fight with somebody, you're gonna lose probably. Non-violence, ideas like that: that doesn't come along until the mid 1920s 30s. I mean, that's something that doesn't really develop, ultimately, until Gandhi gets there in the 40s. So people didn't know how to fight back.

I mean, if you fought back the way you're supposed to fight back: the good old American way of getting your rifle and fighting for the revolution like a good patriot would do, you're probably going to end up dead. And so that's the only idea. That's the only notion people had of how to fight back when people attacked you. And typically you would lose. African Americans fought back all the time during this period. I mean, people don't realize that part of the story nearly enough that fighting back was part of it. I mean, African Americans fought back in Tulsa, and they fought back in all of those incidents; you know, they didn't just lay down and die. They tried to save themselves and others.

KCRW: In North Carolina and Florida. There are so many instances of these black enclaves that fought back, but you use the word I thought was really interesting and very telling about 'The 24th,' which is the word patriot and the idea of patriotism, which is, in effect, saying that I have these rights granted by the Constitution. That's what makes you a patriot as an American being born here, basically being able to claim those rights. And 'The 24th' really deals with patriotism because it's set in the US military in 1917. So if you would, let the audience know what the picture is about a little bit.

Willmott: Sure, well, they sent a little over 700 black soldiers to Houston, Texas in 1917 to guard the construction of a thing called Camp Logan, and Camp Logan was designed to retrain soldiers to go fight in World War I in France. And the 24th Infantry Regiment was anxious to go fight in France because they were influenced by everything that was going on at the time, you know, over there, send the word over there. We all want to go fight in France. We all want to show our love of country and patriotism. The 24th had fought in the Spanish American War, gone up San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt, had fought in the Philippines. So they were, you know, a battle ready regiment ready to go and show what they could do. 

And it was a very racial war. It was the racial climate of this period.  I mean, you just really can't underestimate how racist a period this is. Because, you know, Woodrow Wilson is president. He's a serious racist. I mean, he gets up eating racism for breakfast, you know, and so he basically doesn't want to send black troops to fight in France because he doesn't want to give them that glory, that respect, that chance to prove themselves. And so the the soldiers, the 24th was an all Black unit. It was segregated during that time, obviously. And so they show up in Houston and immediately run into friction with the citizens of Houston. You know that old song that Leadbelly has called 'The Midnight Special.' There's a line in that song where it says "If you ever go to Houston you better walk right, you better not hustle, you better not fight." And he was referring to the bad policemen in Houston in that song, and the police in Houston at that time were notoriously bad apples and they brutalized everybody, but they especially brutalized Black folks. Long story short, they started brutalizing members of the 24th and eventually, a little over 150 soldiers marched on Houston and went out to the police.

KCRW: What I think is so interesting about this film is that you did a number of things to really sort of give it this epic impact, which is to take the character that Trey plays and to make him a modern man, and a traveled man and an educated man, but unlike that kind of Black Panther movies generally, he is somebody who is not part of the race. He is somebody thinks of himself as being better and this character does not, and I want to talk to you about that because that's an interesting twist to give that kind of person. That kind of guy who is made fun of, be it Andre Braugher in 'Glory' or anything with an educated Black man. He's the kind of guy who says, Well, I'm not Black, and you made a point of making this character who would be called in that day a “race man.”

Willmott: They did exist. And W.E.B. Du Bois is probably the best example of a character like that. I mean, he is educated overseas; he's had education in America, but he gets further education in Berlin and comes back in and he's the guy that creates that whole term we're really talking about. He's a race man, and he thinks race defines what it means to be a modern man at that time and devotes his life to trying to really, you know, raise up the race and that whole concept of the talented 10th. The talented 10% of Black folks are gonna reach back and help the 90% of Black folks who are still in poverty and discrimination. And, that's what fuels Boston in the film. 

He is someone who has come up through that kind of teaching and that kind of influence and then of course runs into the issues with that, which are you're a rare figure when you're educated at that time and you're an especially rare figure in the blue collar at best circles of the military. And so some people look at you as if you're a savior and other people look at you as if you're a threat in some kind of way. And as you said, those kind of problems still kind of exist today within not just Black circles but American circles, as education causes a lot of people to be suspect. So that whole thing I thought was really interesting and honestly, I think there were a lot more guys like Boston than we have seen in film really.

KCRW: I agree with you wholeheartedly and the conception is in film or even in literature, we should expand it to the idea of that person having an awareness to make him sort of self-hating and tragic in some way. And you choose not to do that. I mean, the tragedy is he has to work that much harder to try to allay that kind of suspicion that comes from people who are not educated and think that he reminds me of the light skinned guy in the big house who got to leave slavery behind and was treated better. And this character, Boston, who is normally based on a real figure, is somebody who is at great pains to show that he has not left this kind of thing behind. And that feels like, as you worked on this project, this was really the crux of what you want to bring to the film to show this kind of character wouldn't be self hating.

Willmott: Guys like him, like Boston in the film, real guys like him that would have had the opportunity to get an education; sure, some of them could become self-hating, and Uncle Toms and things like that. But most of them knew that the education they received was rare and typically sacrificial, that people had to sacrifice to get you an education, and Black folks had to sacrifice to get you an education. And that typically meant that you had a responsibility to pay back. And this time, especially African Americans are sacrificing, on all kinds of levels to really raise the race. That's why cities like Tulsa developed these great Black communities that were later destroyed because people were sacrificing; people were very race conscious. 

They were trying to find a way to improve the lives of African Americans, and they felt that if we can get educated, if we can be industrious, if we can create an economy within the Black community, we'll raise up not just the individuals that benefit from all that, but we'll raise up the entire race and the community. And whites will see that and go, "Well, they're not so bad after all. Maybe they do deserve some equal rights." And that was always the hope. I mean, that's what they always talked about. Black soldiers, especially from the Civil War on, are thinking that their sacrifice will convince folks that they're okay and that they deserve better treatment and equal rights. And so that was just a huge push, and Black folks saw World War I as an opportunity to really do that.

KCRW: You use so many archetypes in the film that I can't watch it and not think in some ways of you viewing this as a way to turn a lot of the ideas of what we see in films on their heads, and as a film scholar and film historian, it feels to me like in some ways your mission was to introduce archetypes and then immediately make us ask questions about those archetypes. That partly comes from a great cast: Mykelti Williamson, Trai Byers, Bashir Salahuddin and Aja Naomi King. Generally when we see Black characters, they get one dimension and then they disappear or they have the same dimension the rest of the film. You go out of your way to say, you think you know these people, but you really don't.

Willmott: So glad you asked this because that's a big part of I think the next step that we should try to take in film in terms of these archetypes. I mean, the thing about archetypes and stereotypes even to some small degree is that they're true. I mean, like Black folks like chicken, but Black folks like chicken because chicken was cheap, and chicken was readily available. And so Black folks took chicken and did a whole number on it. So it's like Black folks just don't like chicken because they're Black folks, there's reasons to make that connection. And then these archetypes, that's what you always see. 

It's like, you've got the angry black guy in one of our characters, and he attacks Boston in the beginning of the film. And Walker, could be argued, is the the angry buck, but the reality of it is, is that he's got reasons to feel that way, and they're legitimate reasons.  Oftentimes you see that story between a dark skinned Black person and a lighter skinned Black person, and they end up often killing each other in the film or something like that. And here they make peace because the problem that they have between each other is not racism between each other. It is the racist system that has taught them to hate each other, and to have problems and conflict with each other. And that's the thing that I'm always interested in showing: that these things that create stereotypes that there's typically some reason behind that type that has made us think this and made white folks think that. It made Black folks even buy into it to some degree, and it is the exploration of looking into it a little deeper. It's that complicated conflict of it all that that always interests me.

KCRW: There is something subtextual for those of us people of color in this country that is if you've spent time in the south, you know that oftentimes the light skinned people are looked down upon because they're thought of as being, in effect, traitors anyway being blamed for their own provenance, which they had nothing to do with. And by just casting the film the way you did, we can see those kinds of tensions between darker skinned people and light skinned people in the movie. In subtextual terms, that is a really beautiful thing that you've done with the film, Kevin.

Willmott: Oh, thank you, man. I'm reminded of something I heard Dick Gregory say one time. You know that old adage about Black folks are like crawdads, and when they're trying to climb out of the bucket, they keep pulling each other down. And he always made the joke, you turn the heat off of that pot those crawdads are in, and they tend not to act that way. That's really the point: Black on Black crime, self hate, inner racism among color within the Black community. Those things happen because of outside pressures. Those things happen because of systematic pressures typically generated from the system of racism that we all have grown up in, that have infiltrated our minds and our culture and affected us in all these various ways.

KCRW: What I think is interesting, and maybe it helps coming from an African American filmmaker is that you don't explain a lot of this stuff. You just leave it for people. If you know it, fine. If not, you don't need to know. In narrative terms, this kind of abrasion creates tension that makes the movie move along; it gives it momentum. But if we know what's really going on, it gives the movie an extra layer of subtext. I really have to think that this is something that in a lot of ways has been boiling up in you for a long time, because in films that are about race for you and not about race, you often deal with reaction to archetype, an archetype or behavior and turning it on its head, and so the opportunity to have those two lines intersect must have been a real thrill for you.

Willmott: Yeah, and it's interesting, I kind of feel that it's this period of our history, especially, that those archetypes are being constructed. This is when they're showing up in the history of cinema. This is when 'Birth of a Nation' is coming out, and it's establishing the five major stereotypes. Those stereotypes are sold to America and then kind of sold back to Black folks. And then we kind of breathed that stuff in and then started behaving accordingly in some cultural ways. 

You know, it seemed to me like this period, especially this is when Du Bois is trying to figure out sociology, and this is when the first ideas of Black folks living in cities and having to deal with systematic racism and constructed racism and segregation. You know, this is when it's starting to become real complicated. To be Black in America, and folks are trying to figure it out. Folks are trying to do their best, saying, well, maybe we can do this, and maybe this is the best option, and maybe that's the best option. You've got all these different kinds of leaders who are suggesting different roads, you know: DuBois and Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey and all these different folks. But more than anything, it just says that thing you're talking about, which is they were just trying to find an answer. They're just trying to find a way to make day to day life better for folks. And that's kind of what I'm hoping we show in the film.

KCRW: You collaborated with with Trai Byers on the script. And I wonder how you guys met and how this ended up coing up because so many things you've done before, even when you're not dealing with race in film, you're still dealing with archetypes and growing up seeing a certain kind of character, you greet that character as if you know him already. And in fact, you don't. And so I was sort of wondering how this collaboration came about and how you guys met?

Willmott: Sure. Well, Trey was one of my students at Kansas University. He was in my screenwriting class, and he's been in several of my other films.  When he was my student, I had an earlier form of the script. And I told him at that time, I said, "man, I really think you would be great as the lead in this film." And so, cut to like 20 years later, and he's become a big star on the TV show 'Empire' and actually, I was working on BlacKkKlansman at the time, and we were trying to figure out something we could maybe work on together. 

And I told him I've got this script that I wrote back in the day and he knew about it because I told him about it back when he was a student, and I said, "Hey, man, you know, I want to update the romance, I want to do a few other things and just really kind of want to update it." And I just handed it off to him. And he took it and ran and came back and made a lot of the changes I wanted to make, and we continued to work on it. And that's how it became ‘The 24th.’

KCRW: Have you had a chance to screen it in a theater anywhere because it's diminished by seeing it on the small screen. Just the way you staged the action. It's a really sure hand, by the way. You showed you can run and gun with ‘CSA,’ so you know how to do that and then make sure we know what's going on and actually have action that's commenting on the social context. I just wondered if you had a chance to screen it in a theater before we ended up where we are now.

Willmott: Yeah, I have not. It's actually playing now in Kansas City. And you know, of course any other time but during a pandemic, I would be over there doing a Q and A and would have seen it 12 times or something, and I have not seen it over there yet. I'm hoping to go by and maybe have a special screening or something for just bring my family. I mean, I'm a little paranoid. I'm 60 so I didn't want to come down with that stuff. 

We worked very hard to make it a visual film, and I would love to see how people see it in theaters, and it is playing in a few theaters, but most people are seeing it  on their home television. I have to tell you that we shot the film in 18 days. It was a very fast shoot. All my days of making all my low budget films really helped me with this because, in those situations, you have to kind of edit in your head. I mean, that's where the benefit comes from writing the script and being very attuned to it, because you've got to truly know what it looks like before you shoot it as you're shooting it.

KCRW: Good, because it doesn't feel rushed; it feels really confident. As we're talking about dealing with archetypes here, it's not just men either. We're talking about Aja Naomi King, and Boston looks at her one way because he's an educated man and sees her as an accomplished pianist. And that idea is immediately kind of moved out of the way, literally. I want you to talk about that a little bit too, because this subtext is just sort of upending one stereotype after another just tickled me to death.

Willmott: Well, you know, Aja's character is based on those women that, during this period there are not a whole lot of them, at least not a lot of them that we know by name, that are jazz musicians, and they are learning the style and the approach and are being influenced as African Americans have been influenced with ragtime and all of those things that are going on during this period. She grows out of that, and of course, typically grows out of the church as well like most folks learn the music at that time. 

And one of the things I really wanted to explore with her character was she's sophisticated, but she's still also a down home girl as well. And she's kind of paid the price that a lot of women had to pay in a backwards society, where women are not respected as they should be in various ways. I don't want to give anything away, but I was interested in exploring that and how she kind of has overcome that on her own. She's a very independent woman, and she's found a way to do her thing and to hold on to herself.

And I was very also very interested in the relationship between her and Trey's character in terms of this light skin, dark skin thing again. You know, when you look at your relatives, especially the ones that grew up in the south, and there's all that inner racism stuff that was always a part of Black life, it didn't stop folks from getting together. It didn't stop light skinned folks from marrying dark skinned folks, and there's a whole lot of that going on. I just thought that was just kind of that part of that downhome thing that I think Black folks, especially when they look at their past and their ancestry and where they've come from, I think you always see that.

KCRW: I can't believe it, but we're out of time already. You've got to make another movie so you can come back and do this. It's been 15 years, my gosh, way too long.

Willmott: I know, my friend. I know, man. Well, let's hope we'll do it real soon.

KCRW: Okay, thank you again for doing this. Kevin. My guest is Kevin Willmott, writer-director of the film 'The 24th.' Our recording engineer at KCRW is Paul Smith. The show is mixed by Kat Yore. It's edited by Rebecca Mooney. To better days, everybody. I'm Elvis Mitchell. It's The Treatment.



Rebecca Mooney