Solving "The Negro Problem" Using Satire: The 'Destination' Interview With Director Kevin Willmott

April 20 2017
unnamed   Kevin Willmott, co-writer of Spike Lee’s "Chi-Raq" (2015) and director of the award-winning mockumentary "CSA: The Confederate States of America" (2004) releases "Destination: Planet Negro!" in June from Candy Factory Films. Willmott wrote, directed and stars in this combination spoof and satire on race and American society, which also stars Trai Byers (Andre Lyons in “Empire”) and Wes Studi (Showtime’s “Penny Dreadful” and "Avatar"). Winner of a Special Jury Prize at Dallas Videofest, "Destination: Planet Negro!" is now available through Amazon Prime. "CSA" is on Hulu. A satirical comedy, "Destination: Planet Negro!" opens in the year 1939 when lynching and other forms of racial terror prompt black leaders W.E.B. DuBois and George Washington Carver to effect a unique and enterprising migration: they devise a utopian plan to leave Earth and colonize Mars. The Planet Negro think tank is reminiscent of the Federal Council on Negro Affairs, often referred to as President Roosevelt's “Black Cabinet” - an informal but influential group of black policy advisers, which included educator Mary McLeod Bethune - except in the movie they are working directly for us. Paying homage to early sci-fi movies (and maybe side-eyeing Hollywood’s 1939 releases of "Gone with the Wind" and "The Wizard of Oz"?), Wilmott’s campy and comical spacecraft carries an improbable but expert crew of three that jumps into a time warp instead of heading to Mars. This twist makes it excitingly unclear who or what is the target of Willmott’s satire: is it the brave and brilliant but perhaps naïve space travelers? Is it the uninhabitable American society being left behind? Or both? KevinWillmott Kevin Willmott Satire is a volatile and dangerous tool that black folks have used to critique, mock, and tease eccentricities, toxicities, and failures within our various societies. When Willmott combines the dark edgy analysis of the satire with the silliness of the spoof, he opens up some important conversations about how we use irony and asks if anything is satire-proof. Regular readers of Shadow and Act will know Frances Bodomo’s "Afronauts" as a great example of black speculative fiction. But let me just roll call some more obscure connections: Martin Delaney’s 1859 "Blake, or the Huts of America" is an alternative history novel in which, following a successful hemispheric-wide slave revolt, folks establish the Army of Emancipation of the Oppressed Men and Women of Cuba. Harlem Renaissance novelist George Schuyler’s "Black No More" is the story of a device invented by a Dr. Crookman that removes traces of blackness. "Of One Blood" (1902) by journalist, novelist, and editor Pauline Hopkins (1859–1930) is about mixed race identity and the discovery of a hidden civilization in Ethiopia. Yes, these go way back, so too does black speculation on places and means to breathe. Willmott’s take on the genre combines the rocket ship and time travel in order to reflect on the past and comment on the present, reviving literature that explores our irrepressible desire to live free. Sergio reviewed "Destination: Planet Negro!" and Tambay announced the June digital release here. Last Thursday morning I interviewed Kevin over the phone via the Internets. A very black diasporic connection, with Kevin calling from the environs of Lawrence, Kansas, while I was at the Caribbean Studies Association conference in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. I wore my Caucasians parody t-shirt for the occasion in honor of Kevin’s satirical CSA film and our discussion of satire. Following is my conversation with Kevin Willmott. "Destination: Planet Negro" "Destination: Planet Negro" Terri Francis: So we’re here to talk about "Destination: Planet Negro!" which was actually released in 2013 and I noticed it screened at the 19th annual Black Harvest Film Festival in Chicago and now it's being re-released digitally. So I thought maybe you can start by telling us about this release. Why streaming why now? Kevin Willmott: Sure, well it was never really released before. It just played in a few festivals and so this is actually the first time it’s being really released. It took a while for Candy Factory to actually be able to get the film out [because of] technical problems, so this is actually the first time it’s being released. Technically it was finished in 2013. And now it’s finally being released. TF: And do you have any thoughts on doing the digital release relative to… KW: When you make an independent film these days, especially one that has political overtones or doesn’t have a lot of movie stars in it you’re lucky to get a release at all! TF: True. KW: I’m just glad the movie is finally getting out! TF: Like you, I’m a film professor and I am always trying to get students and the general public to look closely at film and know the history, but more and more I’m interested in teaching attention to the systemic issues around filmmaking and so I ask “where do movies come from?” as a way to get that conversation going and to get it to be comfortable. I wonder if you could build on what you just said about how the digital space supports films with political content and maybe compare it to CSA. KW: Sure, sure. With "CSA," I mean, "Confederate States" was actually, was literally one of the last films that got the old deal that you got when you sold a film. TF: Okay. KW: And the old deal was, you got theatrical release, you got a DVD release, then maybe, if you were lucky you would sell it to some ancillary cable channels or something and those deals were so much better than the deals that you get today, because you had clear markets that your film would play in and, you know, the DVD sales and before that the VHS sales-- there was real money there, and filmmakers, especially independent filmmakers, could really make a film and sell a film. It was always risky, but the risk was lower because there [was] this huge market of Blockbuster video stores all around the country and you had to go there to rent a film and maybe buy a film, but all of that has changed. Now the economics of it, especially for real independent filmmakers, you know you hear that term, “independent filmmaker…” TF: It’s a capacious term. KW: I think an independent filmmaker is someone who literally raises the money themselves and it’s totally all risk in terms of there are no deals that you have set up before the film is made. You are totally--everything is totally at risk, and those are the movies that I make, and so all of that has really gone away and it’s far more risky and harder to make money when you make a small film and so that’s one of the reasons why the teaching thing has been great for me because it gives me a base of support so that I can make the movies I want to make and not have to really compromise the vision of what I’m trying to do. TF: Were some of your students in the film, or did they work crew on the film at all? KW: The students worked crew. Two of the leads in the film, Tosin Morohunfola and Danielle Cooper, were both former students and they had just graduated. And then Trai Byers who is now playing one of the leads on "Empire." TF: Andre! KW: He’s a former student as well. TF: I wanna ask you about the film itself, particularly the genre and where you got the idea for "Destination: Planet Negro!" The title resonated with me as soon as I heard it! Where is that? I wanna go there! Immediately! By being in Haiti, in some ways I am in that place. KW: You’re in Planet Negro right now! TF: Right? I think that's what L'Ouverture and Dessalines had in mind. KW: Exactly yes. Well, I grew up watching those old 1950s films I call “silver bullet rocket ship movies.” The title actually comes from one of them, "Destination Moon." "Destination Moon" (1953) and "Rocketship XM" (1950) were the two that I really wanted to lampoon the most and really pull stuff from. Then [I am also influenced by] films like "Abbott and Costello Go to Mars" (1953) and "Three Stooges Go to Mars" ["Outer Space Jitters," 1957 or "The Three Stooges in Orbit," 1962]. There were so many of those movies, as a kid, that I watched. You know, when you’re making a movie on a low budget... I just thought that at the beginning of it I could have a lot of fun with, you know, satirizing those old movies and spoofing those old movies. But really, the idea’s been with me for a long time. I have always liked the stories about Black folks trying to solve “the negro problem.” I’ve always liked stories about that. I have another film that I’m hoping to make soon about some Black folks that leave the urban problem and go out to an old town that used to be one of the Black settlements, like Nicodemus in Kansas, and tries to restart that again. But you know, that whole notion of black folks trying to find a way to solve the problem is one that I just have always wanted to explore and the whole notion of, going to space, going to Mars and then time-traveling gave me so many opportunities to deal with issues I wanted to talk about. I wrote half of the movie, and I got stuck for a while, and then when President Obama was elected I finally had the other half of the film. I knew what the real point was. I didn’t want it to just be a movie about how bad things were and the “fish out of water” stuff when they get to the modern day. I wanted to try to explore some deeper issues in terms of race and other things, so when President Obama was elected that was great, because that really kind of gave me the signpost I was looking for, and it gave me the villains I was looking for for the movie as well! TF: Could you say more about how President Obama figures here? KW: As soon as he was elected there were all these people getting out of the woodwork in terms of opposition against him. It was so interesting because the Tea Party and those people who came out against him when he was elected were all talking about the “Good Old Days” and how they all had embraced the way-back machine so it was perfect in terms of the overall point I was making about people wanting to take us back in time -- in opposition to people who were trying to move us forward. TF: Let me ask you about satire, which is a potent and complicated tool. I write about Josephine Baker with my theory of an oppositional burlesque which allows her, in my imagination of it, to burlesque herself, but you can be played and then play yourself—while playing around. The thing that people will always say is “Well, you know, she’s compromised,” and it’s like “Yeah! Aren’t we all?” KW: I think that’s a really good point. What you’re saying is that you can’t do what she was trying to do without putting yourself out there, which lends itself to that kind of criticism. TF: There’s a risk. You used that word referring to financial risk but satire seems to me to be risky for Black people. KW: Sure. Spike Lee and Kevin Willmott ("Chi-Raq") Spike Lee and Kevin Willmott ("Chi-Raq") TF: Could you talk about how you use satire and how you define it and such? KW: Well, I just grew up loving satire such as "Dr. Strangelove." In the 60s and 70s there was such good satire then and really dangerous satire. "Dr. Strangelove" is a really bold film, coming right out of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and even lesser satires like "Blazing Saddles" is really great satire. It’s got a lot of spoof elements, similar to what I try to do with "Destination," where you combine both. The real satire elements in "Blazing Saddles" are really great and are another example of how, today when you see that movie on TV and the “n-word” is bleeped out you wanna just say, “So, are you saying that, you know, Mel Brooks is a racist? Are you saying that Richard Pryor, who worked on the screenplay, is a racist?” We can't handle the historical context in which the movie is placed. It’s kind of part of the lie that I think we kind of tell ourselves as Americans that somehow the Old West wasn’t the most racist place in the world. Or that the Deep South, until just recently, wasn't the most racist place in the world. This racial conversation we’re always supposed to be having would be a much more honest conversation if we could at least kind of go there in a historical context and kind of accept the thing we say in "Destination," about taking the “n-word” out of "Huck Finn" because people are uncomfortable. I learned that with my film "CSA." With "Confederate States" I wanted to make a film about the fact that people are still celebrating the CSA, and hold on to that. It took a massacre in a church in Charleston to remove the flag from the capitol grounds in South Carolina, and the government has to be responsible for that. But a lot of Black folks, when they see "CSA" they don’t enjoy it because it makes them uncomfortable, but it’s like that’s kind of the point, you know? And it makes liberal white folks uncomfortable and that's kind of the point. And it pisses off rednecks, and that was clearly the point! It’s the fact that you’re not kind of supposed to go there and I think you can go there and that’s that risk you’re talking about-- you have to go there. You have to go there but you have to go there and hopefully set up the right context for the story so people can understand the point you’re trying to make. TF: Absolutely. Let me ask you about this really great Black Feminist moment in the film about twenty minutes in where Dr. Beneatha Avery (Danielle Cooper) has a conversation with the ace pilot? KW: Oh yeah, Race the Ace. TF: Oh, bless his heart, as they say in the South. He’s coming on to her and she talks about this kind of double oppression of black women as women and as black people. It struck me as an important moment to talk about gender equality for Black women as part of this vision of what Planet Negro can be like. Is that along the lines of what you were thinking? KW: Very, very much so. One of the overall points of the film is [to look at] the 1939 mentality...Beneatha is such an advanced person, she’s way ahead of the game: she’s talking about gay rights, she’s talking about feminism, talking about women’s rights, she’s way ahead of the game. But Race? He’s still got a man’s 1939 mentality which is not much different from today, in some ways! TF: Right, right. KW: So he doesn’t get that at all! He doesn’t get the gay rights thing, he doesn’t get the women’s rights thing—he doesn’t see that at all, so kind of the overall point is just that- you know there's a line that they say when they are having that argument, when they finally land on Plant Negro, about how “you can take the Negro off the planet, but you can’t take the planet off the Negro.” And that’s always the problem when you try to go to a new place or a new space that you hope is gonna free you of some of these things. We, all of us, all of us, take those things, those negative influences that we’ve all been taught and raised with in various ways, we bring all of those things with us. TF: Yeah, part of what you are satirizing, I think, is that utopian desire to get beyond racism, or beyond Blackness or beyond Earth. KW: No doubt about it. And I think, you know, that especially in the 30s and 40s and even up to the 60s to some degree, Black folks were... desperately trying to find a way out of this problem. You’ve got Marcus Garvey, let’s go back to Africa, you’ve got DuBois saying let’s do the Talented Tenth, us upper-class folks will raise up the other folks, and you’ve got other people saying let's just stay in Europe, and... you’ve got Booker T. Washington saying we should do this accommodation kind of thing and learn a skill, and try and get along and try to work with these people the best we can you know, there were all these theories and philosophies to try to deal with what was a horrible state of life that we had in America. TF: Yes. KW: So there was that desperation of-- one of the things I wanted to say with “Let’s go to Mars,” was how desperate we were to solve this problem. So it’s a kind of crazy, funny choice but it comes out of I think, a real desire for freedom. TF: Yes, and you know, it’s a desperation, but also daring? KW: Yes. TF: And ingenious...I enjoyed what felt like a roll call at the start of the film. You know how Spike Lee will have these roll calls in his films of jazz musicians? There’s a roll call of intellectuals in your film, all those folks that you just mentioned plus George Washington Carver, Mary McCleod Bethune and more. Maybe it’s because I’m a professor too—I found the intellectuals roll call really moving, “Oh look, we’re valued!” KW: Yeah, yeah, I think us professor types, we tend to bend that way. We kind of respect that academia thing a little bit. Yeah, I think even before I became part of university life, you know, when I would just read that stuff, those theories and philosophies, and books and histories and biographies of these people, it was a thing that really inspired me as a kid, and these folks were real heroes, and even if they were just thinking and writing and trying to share a point of view to hopefully make things better, during that time that was real heroics and I wanted to show that and also to show how each of their theories, philosophies, and approaches had a little flaw to them. A big part of that was a book I read about Dr. King and how he assessed all of those approaches and why he came to the approach he did. But I think even though they were all slightly flawed in one way or another, each of them had great value and I think Black folks benefited from each of those approaches. TF: And it’s a great conversation. Just seeing such a discussion and the ongoing exchanges that it represents was exciting and it's a kind of homage to that day-to-day grind of experimentation, discussion, and note-taking that leads to books, to films, to building rockets. This way that black people from the moment of capture are plotting, plotting for our freedom and our release. And it continues with independent film, it continues with Shadow & Act, creating audiences and creating discussion. I think it’s just so important and exciting for us to have that framework of adventure and audacity. KW: Those are the words: audacity and adventure. Even though today you look at it as intellectual, but it was real risk-taking at the time. And each of those individuals with those big theories often had to pay personally for their thoughts and beliefs, so that’s a big part of what made them heroes as well. TF: Absolutely. And was there something specific about 1939 that grabbed you? KW: Why 1939? TF: Yeah. KW: Well, because before ‘39 life was just hell on earth for Black folks. I had kind of a weird growing up [in that] my father was 60 years old when I was born. My father was born in 1898 in Mississippi and he went to the 6th grade because they were so poor he had to go to work, and one time he told me they were so hungry they had to eat roots out of a tree, you know? So I think about that a lot in terms of--that was one of the motivations of the film. My parents had both passed away when Obama was elected but I thought about what they would have said, because you know, growing up as a kid, there was this joke about how there would never be a Black president and if there was one they’d kill him the next day. And that was always the joke, and so when it happened, it was just such a miracle [like the] audacious adventure thing we’ve been talking about and it made you really want to think about how far we’ve come and how far we still need to go, and so that was a big part of it. You know, that, it’s just such an amazing thing that that happened, and it made folks believe that we were living in this post-racial society and folks quickly found out that--not so much! TF: Right?! KW: Not so much! TF: Not so much, right, that’s exactly what we’re seeing with this current election season-- we’re seeing how not so much it is! KW: That’s right you know! I’m sorry, there was another part of your question, I didn’t want to skip that. TF: But actually, when you mention your parents I'm wondering if they were funny like you are? Is that where you get your sense of humor? WK: Well my mother was really funny. My mother was really funny. My father was--I got my work ethic from my father, my father was a real hard working guy. Real quiet. I was really fortunate to have great parents, but my mother was very, very funny. She talked a lot of trash and she ran a pool hall in the red light district in Junction City, Kansas where I grew up. My father used to go down there and gamble and that's where my parents met. My first film, "9th Street," is about that street, and so you know, my mother, she was something else. She really was the one that gave me the funky-hip thing that I try to put in my movies. TF: You being from Kansas gives me a whole other way of thinking about who you are, Kevin Willmott. KW: Yeah, I’m kind of a Kansas guy I’m afraid. You know Gordon Parks is from Kansas as well, so all of that was a big influence growing up, obviously. TF: Yeah, absolutely. I was about to ask about the film scene out there in Kansas, but uh, you and Gordon Parks, that’s already quite a scene! You don’t need nobody else out there. KW: Well, he was the man, as far as I was concerned! TF: What a tremendous artist. I was gonna ask you quickly about any new films that you’re working on, or you’re hoping to either make or bring out? KW: Well, I’ve got two other movies that I’m finishing right now. One is called "The Association," with Scot Pollard, who was just on "Survivor." Scot is a former NBA ball player and that film is about kind of the underbelly of sports and crooked agents and also how all these athletes make all this money and end up broke at the end of their careers. And then I have another film about John McLendon--two basketball movies here--John McLendon who was the first Black basketball coach. The McLendon film is a documentary that I’m finishing right now. This other film, called "Juneteenth," is about a widower, a Black widower who has two kids and is struggling to keep his store. He has his little corner market store in an urban city on the east coast, and he finds out that he has inherited one of the black settlements in Kansas. There is this woman that he knows from church, and when she died she left him this town, and it’s now a ghost town. But he goes to his church and gives the people in his church this opportunity to go out there and it’s a forty-acres-and-a-mule kind of thing: if you come out you will get 70 acres of land and you can homestead out there and you can start all over again and, so that's one of my favorite themes, this whole kind of black folks trying to solve their problems and going on adventures to try and solve their problems and so forth. So, I hope to shoot that movie soon. TF: You just made me think of Oscar Micheaux homesteading out there… KW: Micheaux is buried in Kansas, he’s buried in Great Bend. TF: Is he? KW: Yeah he had relatives in Great Bend and when he was visiting out here he passed away, and he’s buried out here. He’s a huge influence for me, because you know he’s the patron saint of independent Black filmmakers! TF: Yes! KW: So, you know, that whole thing of making it happen, that’s certainly part of that story. TF: Yeah, I love it, and once again, Kansas has got it going on with that film scene! KW: That’s right! Somebody’s got to tell the rural story, and that’s up to me a little bit. TF: Absolutely! It’s not all about that urban experience and the east coast experience or west coast or city life. It’s a big ol’ country out here. KW: That’s right, it’s a big ol’ country with a lot of different experiences. TF: Right. Well, I’ve really enjoyed talking to you. This has been a real pleasure for me to meet you… KW: Thank you so much, Terri, for doing this. TF: Yeah, absolutely, and all the best to you. I’ll talk to you soon! KW: Yes, of course, take care of yourself now. TF: Take care, bye bye! Candy Factory Films' release of “Destination: Planet Negro” is now available on VOD and digital HD on all leading digital platforms.
Follow Terri Francis at https://terrifrancisphd.wordpress.com and on Twitter, @Terri_Francis
by Terri Francis on April 20 2017

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