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Movie Review: 'Jayhawkers' Gives Kansans Plenty To Think About

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You may or may not realize this, but up the road just a couple of hours is an Oscar-winner: KU film professor Kevin Willmott. He won the award for co-writing BlacKkKlansman, and is almost certain to be at least nominated again this year for Da 5 Bloods.


But long before he was winning Oscars with Spike Lee, Willmott was writing and directing his own movies, exploring some fascinating ideas and showing an ability to work around his microbudgets. Unfortunately, his movies haven’t been the easiest to get ahold of, so I was excited to see his 2014 film, Jayhawkers, pop up recently on Amazon Prime.


Jayhawkers dramatizes the few years in the 1950s in which legendary KU basketball coach Phog Allen recruited and brought in Wilt Chamberlain to play for the school. And certainly there’s plenty of basketball, shot in high-contrast black-and-white close-up, an artistic decision that both helps to cover up the movie’s budget constraints and is clearly influenced by Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, to which those scenes actually compare pretty favorably.


But of course Willmott has plenty on his mind beyond basketball, and he touches on a range of issues raised by Chamberlain’s presence in Lawrence—the film calls back to Kansas’s abolitionist history, but isn’t shy about exposing the hypocrisy of a place that calls itself the “Free State” and still requires its black residents to sit in the balcony of theaters. That business owners allowed Chamberlain some degree of, quote, “honorary whiteness,” at least while KU was winning games, is just as damning. And the movie does at least begin to address the dishonest tactics involved in college recruiting and the NCAA’s commodification of its athletes.


Jayhawkers definitely has warts—the acting is not strong, the pacing could use work, and some complex issues need a deeper dive. But even this Shocker fan can make allowances—Willmott’s made a nifty film that should give Kansans plenty to think about. 

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.