Kevin Willmott's new film shines light on KC civil rights figure

LAWRENCE – For Academy Award-winning screenwriter Kevin Willmott, the Hollywood jobs are great and all. But the material closest to his heart inspires the stories he tells of overlooked historical events, and particularly local ones, that cast a revealing light on the problems of today.

The newest film written, produced and directed by the University of Kansas professor of film & media studies is just such a story.

Premiering June 19 as part of the Juneteenth Film Festival at the Screenland Armour theatre in Kansas City, Missouri, “The Heroic True-Life Adventures of Alvin Brooks” is a documentary tribute to a Kansas City civil rights icon.

Brooks, still “sharp as a tack,” according to Willmott, at age 92, was one of Kansas City’s first Black police officers in the early 1950s. He went on to a storied career as the city’s first Black department director and creator of its human relations department, as founder of the Ad Hoc Group Against Crime and its Crimestoppers anonymous tip line, as a City Council member, an educator and an all-around advocate for human and civil rights.

Kevin Willmott, professor of film & media studies, speaking at a podium
Kevin Willmott, professor of film & media studies, speaking at an event at KU in 2021. Credit: KU Marketing

Willmott said he first got to know Brooks 20 years ago while filming “From Separate to Equal: The Creation of Truman Medical Centers,” about the racial history of Kansas City’s public hospital.

“We interviewed him for that,” Willmott said, “and he had so many great stories I was like, ‘Wow, there should be a documentary just about him!’ And so when I did a blurb for his autobiography, it reminded me again of how much I really wanted to make that film. And so we finally did it.”

Willmott said Brooks makes for a great documentary subject.

“I'm not sure if it's because he was a policeman or what, but he can tell you the street addresses of where things happened 65 or 70 years ago,” Willmott said. “He tells a story in the film about an encounter he had with a white cop when he was a little kid, maybe 10 years old, and we go back to that location 82 years later, and he says, ‘This cop put a gun to my head and told me, “Run up this hill, (N-word), before I shoot you!”’

“I know I use the term 'living history' a lot, but he is truly living history.”

Willmott said it’s more important than ever, in light of political efforts to downplay and cover up the history of racism in America, to remind people of it.

“I have tried to tell stories that other people don't want to tell and that Hollywood definitely is not interested in,” Willmott said. “There's this whole thing right now that people don't want to hear the ugly part of the American story. They don’t want Alvin to tell what happened to him on that street corner 82 years ago. But to me, you can't get to the beautiful part of the American story without dealing with the ugly part.”

Willmott said the film offers viewers a ray of hope in dark times.

“We're so divided, and there's so much hate going on right now,” he said, “and who knows where it’s going to end up? But Alvin is a reminder of what we can be. He's a reminder of the best of us. Because I still hold on to Dr. King and what he believed in. That's the America I believe in. And it's hard to hold on to that these days. So the movie, in some ways, is a great reminder of ... who we really are, and who we can be.”

The early show of the June 19 premiere is sold out at press time, but tickets remain for the 8:30 p.m. show. The film will also be presented at 6 p.m. June 30, at the Lawrence Arts Center as part of the Free State Festival.

Wed, 06/05/2024


Rick Hellman

Media Contacts

Rick Hellman

KU News Service