The Lucas Brothers On Creating 'Judas And The Black Messiah'
The buzzy film's screenwriters discuss making room for complex female characters and whether Fred Hampton would be a Bernie Sanders supporter if he were alive today.
Keith and Kenny Lucas first learned about Fred Hampton in college. The stand-up comedy duo, better known as The Lucas Brothers, were studying philosophy and came across him in an African-American history course. “He was kind of a footnote in the Civil Rights Movement and it always struck us as odd,” Kenny tells NYLON in a recent phone interview. Hampton’s story piqued their interest then, and the twins have never stopped thinking about him since. They graduated college, enrolled in law school, and later dropped out. They then ventured into stand-up, where they quickly made a name for themselves with their irreverently political comedy style. But throughout, Fred Hampton was always on the brain. Eventually, partially inspired by their lifelong interest in cinema, the pair decided to make a film out of his story.
But it would take a while before they figured out exactly how to do so.
Their Golden Ticket came when the brothers stumbled across William O’Neal’s Eyes On the Prize interview, where the infamous Black FBI informant extensively detailed his experience infiltrating the Black Panther party to secretly feed vital information about Hampton to Agent Roy Mitchell — information that would one day help in Hampton’s untimely assassination. “The interview structured the entire movie,” Keith says. “We were like, ‘Oh, let’s base our outline off this. We can sell it as a thriller but also have the Fred Hampton biopic inside the thriller!’”
From there, the twins shopped Hampton’s story around Hollywood, but were routinely met with rejections. It wasn’t until the duo were paired with director Shaka King to work on an FX pilot that everything seemed to coalesce. After combining their outline with a screenplay about Hampton written by Will Berson, the pair convinced King to come on board — and out came the thrilling Judas and the Black Messiah, which premieres in theaters and on HBO Max Friday, February 12.
Ahead of its Sundance debut (where it was unsurprisingly met with rave reviews), NYLON hopped on the phone with Keith and Kenny Lucas to talk about their shift from comedy to drama, making room in their film for complex female characters, casting, why the story of Fred Hampton is so much less discussed than that of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, and whether or not Fred Hampton would be a Bernie Sanders supporter if he were alive today.
You both come from a comedy background. What drew you towards this particular story, which, for all intents and purposes, is much more dramatic in nature?
Kenny: I think we led with the idea that if you want it to be substantive, especially with feature filmmaking, it's better to look at dramatic stories. We studied philosophy and we’ve always had this fascination with tragedy, especially Greek tragedy. So we had formal training in that logic. So when we read the William O'Neal transcript and about the assassination of Fred Hampton, and combined that with our film experience, we said, "Oh, this works as a dramatic story."
Keith: Right. We've always been fascinated with dramatic film — since high school, really. I think we had ambitions of being screenwriters before we branched out into stand-up comedy. It just felt much harder to break into Hollywood as a screenwriter than it would be as a stand-up comedian, so we pivoted to stand-up. But I don't think anybody in our family would've assumed we would've done comedy at all. We've always been kind of serious.
I know this idea was gestating long before any actors were attached, but it’s shocking how great both LaKeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya are in their respective roles. While you were developing the film, did you envision any specific actors portraying these characters?
Keith: LaKeith was the only person we thought of for William O’Neal, to be honest. We'd seen him in Selma first. I know he did Short... What was the name of the movie — the first one he did?
Short Term 12.
Keith: Yeah, exactly. But we saw him in Selma first.
Kenny: And then in Get Out.
Keith: Then in Straight Outta Compton, and then obviously Atlanta. He's such a versatile actor and we just felt like he would add depth to the William character. He was just the first person we thought of. And Shaka immediately thought of Daniel Kaluuya as Hampton. When we talked to him for the second or third time, he said he wanted Kaluuya, and we were like, "Yeah, that's perfect. They were both in Get Out. They're coming up together. They’re young but hungry, and probably two of the best actors of their generation. This will be a great way to bring them together in a film that is about brotherhood, on some level, but also about betrayal.”
Kenny: We thought about Jesse [Plemons] for Roy [Mitchell] immediately. We entertained Matt Damon, too, but Roy was younger at the time, so it made more sense to go with Jesse. And with Deborah [Johnson], Shaka was already thinking about Dominique [Fishback].
Keith: Shaka had been exposed to her work from The Deuce and Show Me a Hero, and he was a huge fan of hers. And she just nails it. She's a star. She's the heart and soul of the movie.
Kenny: She conveys so much with her eyes. That casting was a stroke of genius.
I completely agree when it comes to Dominique. Even in terms of her character, I found it so refreshing how you made sure to highlight the women that were so integral to the Black Panther Movement — especially since there’s a long history of women being erased from these narratives. Judas is obviously about Fred and Bill, but did you make a special effort to ensure that the women in the story still felt completely developed?
Keith: Absolutely. In our first script, we had way more women, actually. But the script ended up being around 160 pages, so we had to whittle it down a bit. But we always wanted to make sure the women of the movement were fleshed out and deemed important, because they were. They carried the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers. [Their contributions] were crucial to the development, so we definitely wanted to make sure we didn't marginalize them.
The events of this film happened six decades ago. When crafting this story, were you thinking about how relevant it would be to what’s going on in America right now?
Kenny: Absolutely. As a student of history, I've noticed that certain things — conditions, elements — are consistent throughout time: things like the brutality of law enforcement and the fascistic tendencies of our government when African-American people are striving for freedom and equality under the law. There tends to be a repressive reaction to that, and it's littered throughout history.
Keith: Yeah. With the murder of Breonna Taylor, you can't help but think about Hampton and the fact that they died very similarly. Even after the fact, they were both criminalized. It's heartbreaking that not much has changed in that regard. Obviously, there's been a ton of progress for African-Americans, but it hasn't been enough, and that's in large part because we live in a country where systemic racism is the norm. It's almost as if every institution works in concert to repress and oppress African-Americans. Fred was a fighter and we're going to keep fighting until we get equal rights, but it's heartbreaking that we still have to fight.
Judas seems destined to join a lineage of films about Black historical figures — from Spike Lee's Malcolm X to Ava DuVernay's Selma. At the same time, Judas feels different because the story of Fred Hampton is so under-discussed compared to that of figures like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Why do you think he’s been erased in this way?
Kenny: I think there are a couple of factors that explain why Hampton may have been marginalized while Malcolm X and King were elevated. For one thing, it's the duration of time they had in the national spotlight to spread their message. King had from 1956 until 1968 to engage the national press and a national audience. I think that imprinted him on the national [psyche] in a way that's distinct from Hampton. Same with X, who was also in the spotlight for much longer. I don't even think Fred Hampton had a national audience. He did some interviews with ABC and a couple others, but it wasn't as sustained as X and King. I also believe that the Panthers were vilified much more than King’s organization, which was SNCC.
I think the Nation of Islam was vilified, but they adopted a more capitalistic ideology, so they might've been more palatable to the national press. But the Panthers — and especially Fred Hampton — were committed Marxists, which at that time was a no-no. You know, You can't embrace communism because they're our sworn enemy. I think King was a little bit more adept in how he navigated that space of Marxism versus maintaining his gradualism and moderation.
The third thing is that there is direct evidence that the FBI conspired with the Chicago Police Department to assassinate Hampton. But with King and X, the assassination was a little bit murkier. If you suggest that the government was involved with King's assassination, there's always this notion that you're being conspiratorial. But with Hampton, it's harder to say that because of the evidence that suggests that the FBI was heavily involved in his assassination. I think the national press worked to ensure that people wouldn’t think about [Hampton’s assassination] because of how egregious it is and because it implicates the federal government.
We talk about the FBI’s involvement in Hampton’s assassination, but I’m also curious about how you approached crafting William O’Neal’s involvement in it — especially in light of current conversations about Black-on-Black violence. Given that so much of Judas is told through Bill’s eyes, did you ever struggle trying to craft a story about anti-Black racism that was centered on one Black man’s betrayal of another?
Keith: That’s an excellent question. We grew up in Newark, New Jersey, which is a mostly-Black city, with Black leadership, a Black mayor, a Black city council, and a lot of Black-on-Black violence. As kids, we didn't really have that firsthand experience with white-on-Black racism. Our first experiences were with Black-on-Black conflict, so we didn't want to shy away from that reality. Now, obviously, white racism and systemic racism hovers over everything. Even in the inner-city, white systemic racism is there with things like redlining. But you have to dig a little bit deeper to understand the impact of white folks on the condition of African-Americans in Black-led cities.
But with Judas and the Black Messiah, it's a true story and we didn't want to undersell William O'Neal's involvement in bringing down Hampton. Because it also speaks to how Dr. King was brought down and how Malcolm X was brought down. The FBI utilized Black informants to surveil a lot of African-Americans. They worked in concert, and I think it's better for African-Americans to understand how the government used us against each other. Hopefully, in rejecting the white power structure, we can be brought more together. That's the hope, at least.
One of the most interesting points about Fred Hampton’s placement in the larger Black Panther movement was his investment in bringing together minorities of all kinds, which goes against the prevailing narrative about this group that’s commonly seen in the media. Hampton founded the Rainbow Coalition, which brought the Panthers together with the Young Patriots (White Southerners) and the Young Lords (Latinos). Though I know they aren’t at all related, watching this film now, in a post-Biden inauguration America, I couldn’t help but think back to all the Democratic calls for “unity.”
Kenny: I don't want it to seem as though we were endorsing a notion of neoliberal unity as espoused by the Democratic Party. That’s not what we're trying to suggest Hampton believed. On the contrary. Hampton did believe in a cross-cultural, cross-racial movement. But his belief was that this movement needed to be informed about certain conditions and aware of Marxist ideology. He rejected the very capitalist ideology that I think many Democrats embrace.
Hampton saw the system as fascist. I think he felt that, in order to defeat a fascist system that's well-armed, well-financed, with every situation to their advantage, you need everyone. You can't just rely on a fringe group of African-Americans to defeat a war machine. You need every living, breathing soul who may subscribe to your ideology to fight against them. He was realistic about that. I mean, look at the Nation of Islam. I ain't going to say this because I don't want them to come after me...but I just think that fringe extremism is not a realistic, pragmatic ideology to uphold, because it keeps you in this bubble and you're not going to be able to make any progress.
Keith: Hampton was always anti-capitalistic and anti-neoliberal fascism. He wasn't just against whites bashing him. He wasn't just against white folks who were capitalistic. He was against Black people who were capitalistic. He was against anyone who supported a system that led to the systematic oppression of poor people. It's important to make that distinction.
You were both huge Bernie Sanders supporters. Do you think Bernie’s is closer to the type of ideology that Hampton would subscribe to if he were alive today?
Kenny: There is certainly some overlap between Bernie's thoughts and Hampton's, but Bernie's more of an institutionalist and I think that Hampton's a radical. In his young age, he was radical. I don't know how Hampton might've evolved as he got older, if he might've moderated his position a little bit more. I don't think he would have, but that's hard to really say.
Keith: If he was around now, I just don't think he would subscribe to the system at all. He rejected the system itself. I don't think he believed that you can work within these institutions to change conditions. So as radical as Bernie seems, I think Hampton is way more radical. Also, I respect Bernie tremendously, but in the background [of his ideology], there's a heavy emphasis on class. On the other hand, while Fred acknowledged the class struggle, he never relegated racism to the margins — it was always front and center. He realized that fascism, capitalism, and racism, they're all intertwined. There's an axis of evil, and you have to attack all of them.
Kenny: I think you might be able to throw in sexism.
Keith: Yes, sexism as well. You have to attack all of them with great vigor.
The film is already getting tons of awards attention, specifically for the screenplay. With this being your first foray into feature filmmaking, is that an exciting prospect?
Kenny: As a student of history, especially Academy and Hollywood history, yeah, it would be amazing. It would be an incredible honor to receive any sort of award for ideas we've thought about. But when the subject matter is Fred Hampton, and you're speaking about these very serious conditions and issues, and so many people are invested in him emotionally, I always try to keep my mind on that aspect. I don't want to get ahead of myself or put my own personal achievement above what I wanted to get from the story, which is to spread Fred’s message.
Keith: Right. I don't want to set it up. Say, for instance, we don't get the nomination. I don't want that to invalidate the experience of being able to get Fred Hampton's message to more people. To me, that's the win: more people learning about Hampton, more people learning about his message, more people researching him, more people just being aware of this very great person. Also, more people being aware of the Black Panther Party in a more positive light, as a group of activists who were working to fix the conditions of the city that they were living in.
Awards are great, but Fred and his message is the win right here.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.