Filmmakers Kevin Willmott and Rick Cowan changed the course of history. Now they're telling Wilt Chamberlain's tall tale.

Ball Busters 

Filmmakers Kevin Willmott and Rick Cowan changed the course of history. Now they're telling Wilt Chamberlain's tall tale.

This summer, the South rose again.

The uprising started in June, when Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt gave his blessing to a one-day flying of the Confederate flag in a Higginsville Civil War cemetery in honor of Confederate Memorial Day. The flag hadn't flown on state-owned soil since January 2003, when then-Gov. Bob Holden banned it.

The incident sparked protests, including a demonstration by the NAACP at the governor's mansion in Jefferson City.

Bizarrely, Blunt spokesman Spence Jackson called upon the ghost of Abraham Lincoln to defend the governor.

"The furthest thing from Abraham Lincoln's mind would have been to interfere with the honoring of fallen Confederate soldiers by families, comrades or their ancestors," Jackson said.

(The fact that truth was stranger than fiction led a surprising number of Pitch readers to believe a satirical June 23 spoof that "reported" on a controversy raging after downtown arena construction workers supposedly unearthed the bodies of six whore-mongering rebel soldiers.)

The rebel revival continued in July when commercials for the widely panned Dukes of Hazzard movie played nonstop prior to the adaptation's August 5 release. Although it was conspicuously absent from the movie's trailers, the Confederate flag is emblazoned atop Bo and Luke Duke's orange '69 Dodge Charger, affectionately known as "the General Lee." (According to The Wall Street Journal, the filmmakers feared that excluding the flag from the Dukes' Dodge would have offended longtime fans of the TV show. So they compromised with concerned execs at Warner Bros., who told the Journal that the movie's treatment of the flag would be "tongue in cheek" and "derided as an inappropriate symbol of the dark past.")

Despite its absurdity, the recent Confederate cavalcade reveals something disturbing about the unfinished business of the Civil War — and the timing couldn't be better for Lawrence filmmaker Kevin Willmott and his producer, Rick Cowan.

They appreciate the free publicity.

Nearly two years ago, their faux documentary C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America shocked the Sundance Film Festival. In the film, Willmott evokes an alternate world in which the South has won the Civil War. Slavery is still a thriving industry, with the goods sold on TV's Slave Shopping Network. Instead of "The Star Spangled Banner," the national anthem is "Dixie."

At Sundance, scores of people were turned away from the movie's sold-out screenings. Entertainment Weekly lauded C.S.A. Melvin Van Peebles, considered the godfather of black cinema, praised Willmott, saying he'd been aiming for something similar with his own groundbreaking Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song, the story of an African-American sex worker who beats down a couple of white cops after seeing them assault a black revolutionary. In a matter of days, Willmott and Cowan sold the film's American distribution rights to IFC Films. IFC set a release date for early 2005. Then ... nothing.

"They bought it in the heat of the passion of Sundance. They saw hundreds of people being turned away in the waiting line; they saw what was there," Cowan tells the Pitch. "Time passes, time passes, the new-car smell wears off, they show it around and people are like, 'I don't know if we can get people in to see that,' and it gives them cold feet."

"This is like you're handing them an atomic bomb with the fuse lit, and you're saying, 'When you going to show it?'" Willmott adds. "And they're like, 'Whoa, man! Let's talk about this for a second.'

"We've always called this the most controversial film that never had sex, violence or bad language," Willmott continues. "When you question your inherent moral worth and your belief system and your history, it offends people. And it upsets theater owners, too. And people, as liberal as they try to be, have a tough time getting their head around it."

The bomb will finally drop on October 7. That's when IFC has scheduled C.S.A. 's release. In the South.

C.S.A. is funny, but to appreciate the humor, audiences must summon the courage to laugh at the absurdity of enslaving an entire race of people.

On one level, the film parodies Civil War documentarian Ken Burns, following the PBS icon's blueprint of talking heads spliced with archival photos, paintings and drawings. However, instead of an epic saga incorporating battlefield commentary, à la Shelby Foote, Willmott presents a supposedly controversial British documentary about the rise of the Confederacy.

It recounts how French and British forces joined with the South at Gettysburg to rout the North. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant surrenders to Gen. Robert E. Lee. Harriet Tubman disguises Lincoln in blackface — when he balks, she tells him, "We're both niggers now, Mr. President" — and they flee via the Underground Railroad. They're caught, though; Tubman is hanged and Lincoln is tried as a war criminal.

Willmott wickedly weaves in his own footage of an aged Lincoln living in Canadian exile ("Now I, too, am a Negro without a country," the would-be Great Emancipator says) as well as Adolf Hitler visiting his Confederate allies. Willmott also blurs his fiction with reality, altering archive photos of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon and the soldiers at Iwo Jima — in both cases, they're raising the Confederate flag.

Sprinkled throughout are commercials advertising products we all might be using today. A racing legend named Duke Cooter hawks Sambo X-15 motor oil next to a replica of the Dukes' General Lee. A tuxedo-wearing servant pushes Darkie Toothpaste, promising "a shine that's jigaboo-bright." Knockoff Marlboro men smoke Niggerhair Tobacco. A family chows down at the Coon Chicken Inn, and the Gold Dust twins — brown-skinned babies — extol the virtues of scrubbing with Gold Dust Washing Powder.

These ideas didn't just come from his twisted imagination, Willmott says. He says Burns' Civil War lit a fire under him when he learned that the Confederacy planned to expand into Mexico, Cuba and South America to create a "tropical empire." But Willmott's big idea, he says, was to "reverse history" — what happened to Jefferson Davis (imprisoned in Fort Monroe, Virginia) would happen instead to Abraham Lincoln. He would simply reverse the roles.

"Sometimes I look at this shit and go, 'What the fuck were we thinking?'" Willmott says.

So do others. One night, Willmott says, after a screening of the film at the University of Kansas, a young black man approached him and said, "I didn't find that funny."

"I didn't, either," Willmott replied. "That's why I made the movie."

Willmott grew up admiring the radical filmmakers of the '60s and '70s, and he says C.S.A. is a radical film in the refuse-to-compromise spirit of Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese and the architects of blaxploitation films.

"I knew early on that I was going to have a hard time making the films that I wanted to make," Willmott says. "That's why it was so great to find Rick, because you needed a team of people who were willing to believe in that vision."

At first sight, Willmott and Cowan seem like an odd pairing. Cowan's thinning mullet is becoming less business up front and more party in the back.

Married with three grown children, Cowan is a former stage actor who went to Northeast Missouri State University (now Truman University) on a drama scholarship. Cowan says a midlife crisis on the way to an audition (where he would meet his wife, Wendy Thompson) led him to ditch acting in favor of producing television commercials. For years, he made ads for mainstream clients such as the Missouri Lottery and Wal-Mart.

Born in Macon, a small town in north central Missouri, he could easily play the clichéd part of a gun-loving redneck — he'll happily show off his ATF license, which allows him to buy explosives, and he'll tell you about the time 25 years ago when he and a friend split a case of hand grenades and spent an Independence Day playing "chuck and duck" in the woods.

Willmott, meanwhile, still wears the look of a '70s radical. Specks of white hair salt his Afro and beard. He's a former standup comedian, a father of five, and an assistant professor of theater and film at the University of Kansas. "That keeps the gas and lights on," he says. But his wife of 23 years, Becky Willmott, disagrees. "He's a teacher first and foremost," she says. "He always says that's his secondary job, but he's really good at teaching." In fact, he used to teach religion (his wife describes it as leftist Catholic activism) at a Catholic high school in his hometown of Junction City, Kansas.

Willmott's partnership with Cowan started 13 years ago, when Willmott returned to Kansas from New York University with the script for Ninth Street in hand. Set in Junction City, street characters — pimps, hos, hustlers — mingle with an activist preacher (Martin Sheen), a cab-stand operator (Isaac Hayes) and a couple of chatty old winos. The black-and-white movie flaunts Willmott's flair for dialogue, but its story is at times unfocused and rushed.

Cowan served as its producer and continued to act as the one-man staff of the team's imprint, Hodcarrier Films, improvising the roles of attorney, accountant and main negotiator while moonlighting on his commercial gigs.

Meanwhile, Willmott kept working on scripts. With Mitch Brian, he wrote Shields Green and the Gospel of John Brown, about the relationship between a former slave and the famous abolitionist. They sold the script to 20th Century Fox, where it's still collecting dust. So are two scripts they wrote for Oliver Stone. They also wrote a miniseries, The '70s, which NBC aired in 2000.

But making C.S.A. and getting it to Sundance, Cowan says, was the holy grail.

In Park City, Utah, movie lovers and industry people turned out in droves to see C.S.A.

A handful of distributors wanted C.S.A. , but IFC Films "shoved itself to the forefront," Cowan recalls. Within days of seeing the film, the film distributor had bought the film's American distribution rights.

"In this case, there was an urgency of wanting to have things come together there," says Sarah Lash, vice president of acquisitions for IFC.

Lash says IFC admired the film's originality, irreverence and dark humor. "This is a film that, to its credit, really puts political correctness on the shelf," she says. "Not in a gratuitous manner and not necessarily for the sake of entertainment but really to the end of politically provocative discussion."

Still, IFC requested that several scenes be cut. Willmott and Cowan argued for the scenes' inclusion and say they won most of the battles. But they re-edited the film, moving its commercials around and building toward a peak later in the film with an ad for Contrary, a slave-subduing pill.

"About the time that you tell someone they should contact their veterinarian and that there will be anal bleeding, you've just about pushed the audience to the limit of the envelope," Cowan says.

While re-editing and rerecording voice-overs progressed on C.S.A. , some of Hodcarrier's equally provocative ideas seemed likely to take off as well. Willmott had written a hip-hop adaptation of Aristophanes' Greek comedy Lysistrata (about women withholding sex until their men stop warring), giving it an urban setting but keeping the ancient dialogue in verse. Spike Lee loved the idea, read the script and wanted to direct it. DreamWorks showed some interest, and Willmott met with Lee and Jennifer Lopez. But Cowan says the studio balked when the project's price tag swelled to $25 million with Lopez and Dave Chappelle attached.

Their advance for C.S.A. went right back into the movie. They had to pay for the rights to the stock and archival footage they had "borrowed."

They say they don't blame IFC for the delay, but it's been frustrating.

"Hopefully we'll recapture some momentum that might have been lost," Spike Lee tells the Pitch. Lee saw an early copy of the film courtesy of the William Morris Agency, which represents both Lee and Willmott, and he loved the satire. In an effort to help Willmott, Lee lent his name to C.S.A. as executive producer after the Sundance debut.

Lash says it's not uncommon for a film's release to take more than a year. It wasn't that IFC got cold feet, she says. The distributor was just trying to find the right time for the release.

After all, not every review has been glowing. Variety panned the mockumentary. "The laudably provocative impulse behind the project never busts loose into incendiary or subversive outrageousness," wrote Todd McCarthy in the March 9, 2004, issue, "due to a combination of historical fastidiousness, lack of stylistic bravado and an ever-growing feeling that the premise is played out well before the finale."

Willmott is unapologetic about the fact that his movie requires audiences to be patient while he ties up the satire's various threads.

"That's when we leave the part of the movie that everyone can go, 'That's not my world, and I can laugh, and I can snicker at the whole thing and it's fun.' But then the movie turns into this other thing and it's not so much a what-if as a what-is, and the closer we get to now, the more it does that," he says.

"We don't wink, and we don't nod. We don't tell you that it's OK to laugh. You've got to have the courage yourself to do that. And you've got to get past your guilt, and you've got to get past your anger and your shame. And you've got to get past your whiteness and your blackness. And that's a challenge for America."

The next challenge goes out to Lawrence, Kansas.

Willmott and Cowan make big gambles, and their next gamble may be their biggest. Along with some other investors, the two have recently formed a new company, Big Dipper LLC, to tackle the tall tale of University of Kansas basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain's college years.

People now may think of Chamberlain primarily as a self-described sex machine. But in Lawrence, it's his athletic legacy that's mythical. The stories say he ran like a gazelle and threw down thunderous dunks. In two seasons at KU, he averaged a freakish 29.9 points and 18.27 rebounds. His lucky No. 13 hangs retired in the rafters at Allen Fieldhouse. He was a 7-foot-1-inch giant with an equally big heart.

Entrusting such a sacred figure to these two filmmakers might sound risky, even if Willmott is a KU professor. But Willmott and Cowan worked out a deal with Chamberlain's sister, Barbara Lewis, who gave them the family's blessing to tell the story of her brother's days in Lawrence.

"I wouldn't have wanted to tell his story without the family's cooperation," Willmott says. He has a limited period of time to draft a script and get the film made with Lewis' blessing. Along with co-writer Scott Richardson, Willmott has been hard at work on a screenplay for Wilt of Kansas, and Cowan expects shooting to begin around July 2006. They're hoping for a release date in 2007, just in time for the 50th anniversary of what may have been the greatest game in the history of college basketball: the 1957 NCAA title game in which Chamberlain's Jayhawks lost a heartbreaking one point, triple-overtime game to North Carolina.

Willmott has long been interested in Chamberlain's days at KU, especially given Lawrence's racism during the 1950s. Despite its reputation for being a liberal city, Lawrence struggled with desegregation at the height of the civil rights movement. Willmott calls it a "polite segregation" — restaurants refused to serve blacks, hanging "We have the right to refuse service," "We are socially selective" or "Coloreds served in sacks" signs. Theaters forced black moviegoers to sit in balconies. Hotels refused to rent rooms to blacks.

Although the city was founded by abolitionists, Willmott considers Lawrence the best example of the South's postwar victory over the North.

Chamberlain arrived in town a year after Brown v. Board of Education outlawed segregation in schools — his freshman year, 1955, was the same year Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of an Alabama bus.

Prior to signing Chamberlain with KU, his handlers had made sure the future star's visits to the campus were sheltered, keeping the segregation in Lawrence a secret — one exposed soon enough after he arrived in Kansas after leaving his Philadelphia home. According to Robert Allen Cherry's definitive biography Wilt: Larger Than Life, Chamberlain entered a Kansas City restaurant on the way to Lawrence and was denied service. He drove straight to then-coach Forrest "Phog" Allen's home and threatened to go back to Philly. Allen calmed him down and talked him into staying.

And in his dominant debut against Northwestern on December 3, 1956 (NCAA rules at the time kept freshmen off the varsity squad), Chamberlain scored a school-record 52 points, grabbed 21 rebounds and led the Jayhawks to an 87-69 victory. That season, he led Kansas to the 1957 NCAA title game.

"Lawrence had to begrudgingly let him in," Willmott says. "He would come into a restaurant and sit down and just not leave. And they'd finally go, 'OK, Wilt, what will you have?' And he did that in the movie theaters as well. So they begrudgingly gave him a pass, and he's honorary white, in a way."

But, Cherry writes, Chamberlain frequently complained to KU Chancellor Franklin Murphy of injustices and often threatened to leave the university. Murphy did everything to appease Chamberlain. So did a good ol' boy network linked to Allen and his son, county attorney Mitt Allen, who made it known that segregation in Lawrence was over.

Never lacking bravado, Chamberlain later bragged in his 1973 autobiography, Wilt: Just Like Any Other 7-Foot Black Millionaire Who Lives Next Door, that he had "single-handedly integrated" Lawrence.

Within the confines of the team, race wasn't an issue.

But, Willmott says, "The moment they go outside, everything is race, and it was a real life-changing experience for these guys. People are going to be shocked at the degree of hate these people had over basketball."

According to Cherry, when KU traveled to the NCAA's Midwest Regional, the tournament hotel in Dallas refused to rent rooms to Chamberlain and fellow black player Maurice King. (Coach Dick Harp refused to break up his team, so they packed up and stayed in Grand Prairie, Texas, between Dallas and Fort Worth.) In games against Southern Methodist University and Oklahoma City, fans spit on the Jayhawks, yelled racial slurs and threw garbage. KU marched on to the Final Four, even if the team needed a police escort to the Dallas airport.

In 1958, Chamberlain decided to skip his senior year and turn pro.

For years, Chamberlain's former KU teammate Bob Billings, a prominent Lawrence businessman who died in February 2003, asked his friend to come back so the team could retire his jersey. Chamberlain always refused. Speculation about Chamberlain's reasons was varied; among several theories was that he held a grudge against Lawrence because of the segregation. As it turned out, Cherry writes, Chamberlain just didn't want to get booed. He was afraid there were hard feelings over his early exit for the pros and his comments in a 1985 interview in which he claimed that KU boosters had paid him. Most strikingly, he felt that he let down the university and his teammates when KU lost to North Carolina in that 1957 championship game.

Chamberlain finally agreed to return on January 17, 1998, for the first time in 23 years.

During halftime, he walked to center court wearing his KU letter jacket. The fans gave him a standing ovation and chanted, "Wilt, Wilt, Wilt."

"It was a devastating thing to me because I thought I let the university down and my teammates down," Chamberlain told the fans in the Fieldhouse. "But when I come back here today and realize not the simple loss of a game but how many have shown such appreciation and warmth, I'm humbled and deeply honored. ... I'm a Jayhawk, and I know now why there is so much tradition here and why so many wonderful things have come from here, and I am now very much a part of it by being here, and very proud of it. Rock chalk Jayhawk."

But not all was well with Chamberlain. During his visit, he looked sick and sweated profusely, Cherry writes in Larger Than Life. Throughout the weekend, friends asked him to see a doctor.

On October 12, 1999, Chamberlain died of congestive heart failure.

"Wilt wasn't perfect, but Wilt was a great guy and a great man," Willmott says. "Wilt was one of the first black heroes. He transcended race."

Willmott says telling Chamberlain's story will be "only a slight departure" from the dark comedic territory of C.S.A.

"It is a civil rights film just as much as it is a sports movie," Willmott says. He envisions a cross between Hoosiers and Far From Heaven. "The symbolism is just really beautiful in the sense that the same year Wilt comes here, Dr. King is leading the [bus] boycott in Montgomery. ... The metaphor of Wilt is, there's this big black thing coming, and it's this big monster that we kept cornered and in check, and now it's going to be unleashed.

"It's also a metaphor about sex, too," he continues. "A little bit of the movie is about the fear of the black penis ... Wilt was clearly a sexual being. He was big. He was really, really big. So the mystery of his size drives a lot of that 20,000 women thing that you hear today."

Willmott says he feels Chamberlain was misunderstood, largely because he claimed to have bedded 20,000 women — a widely criticized boast that damaged his reputation.

"He's got to be the best at everything," Willmott says. "So he's talking about [how] he's better than [Michael] Jordan at this, and he's better than Magic [Johnson] at that, and they say, 'What about sex?' and he says, 'I've had sex with 20,000 women.'"

Willmott says the film will show a new perspective on Chamberlain's life, not just the excesses.

While he and Cowan lock up the money for Wilt, they plan to stay focused on their own excesses — pissing on political correctness.

The big-screen premiere of C.S.A. is only a month away — in Dixie. The movie opens next month at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, and the Civil Rights Museum will host a showing in Memphis, Tennessee. (A Kansas City release date has yet to be announced.)

In anticipation, Willmott and Cowan have continued their flame-throwing.

The C.S.A. Web site now launches with an auction site called eSlave, selling "chillens," "young coons," "sambos," "litters," and "rascals." On the site's message board, pissed-off Southerners rally their Confederate brothers to protest outside theaters showing C.S.A. They argue that the battle flag doesn't stand for slavery, that the Civil War wasn't about slavery but states' rights, and that they're not racist:

"Thank you Spike for once again showing how racist an individual you are. Keep picking on us Southern White Males," writes someone calling himself Joseph Smith.

"I fly an [sic] Battle Flag and I am not racest [sic] one little bit and to say that I am would be ignorate [sic]. Screw you people for spitting on me and calling me a racist. I and God knows [sic] the truth," puts in "Littel Sorrel."

"Bite me you stupid ass Yankees," writes one Kevin Seiler, "and leave us good ol' boys alone!"

(Willmott and Cowan both scoff at the suggestion that the rants, like the ads in their film, are manufactured. They say they're too busy to make up fake postings for their site's message board.)

Lash says IFC's decision to open the film below the Mason-Dixon line wasn't calculated to stir controversy. But Willmott and Cowan say it's a smart move. To prepare for any backlash, they've already sent copies of the film to African-American leaders such as Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Cornel West.

Willmott welcomes controversy. He says he's simply following the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

"The surgeon has to go inside and reopen the wound because the infection lies so deep," he says. "And that's what C.S.A. does. We go in, and we reopen the wound, and we say, 'You may think that it's healed, but there's still a lot of infection lying underneath.' There's something festering here, and we're going to poke at it, and we'd actually like to remove it if we could, but that's not up to us, that's up to all of us. All we can do is reopen the wound."

"Our expectations are that it's going to be the biggest film of the year," Cowan says. "Those aren't realistic expectations, but I don't know of any way of walking into it without having those expectations."

"We've always joked that we could be lost in the shuffle or we could be on the cover of Time magazine," Willmott says.

"The truth is probably in the middle," Cowan says, "but we're going to choose to believe [we'll be on the cover of] Time."

We'll know by the end of October whether they made it.

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