How a Group of Comedy Veterans Made 'Judas and the Black Messiah'
The crime thriller about the assassination of Black Panther Fred Hampton came together thanks to connections through the comedy world.
When Keith and Kenny Lucas, the identical twins best known as the stand-up duo The Lucas Brothers, were first pitching the film that would ultimately become Judas and the Black Messiah, now on HBO Max, they were rejected over and over. Speaking on the phone, Kenny runs through the various reasons why executives might have balked: The brothers were early in their careers and didn't write the best pitch; the story they were trying to sell dealt with socialism and Marxism; Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton doesn't have the name recognition as other historical figures; and also a movie about the assassination of a Black Panther leader by the FBI's COINTELPRO operation just wasn't what people were expecting from two comedians.
"I'm guessing they were like, 'Oh, they are going to come pitch us comedies,'" Kenny says. "So when we were like, 'Oh no, we have a dramatic film about a Black Panther who gets killed by the state,' they are like, 'OK, that might be above your expertise.'"
But even though Judas and the Black Messiah is an unsettling movie that takes its cues from '70s crime thrillers, it only came together because of talent that was rooted in the comedy world. The Lucas Brothers eventually took their idea to director Shaka King, whose credits include his debut feature Newlyweeds as well as episodes of Shrill and High Maintenance. King and the Lucas Brothers then linked up with Will Berson, a writer who has worked on Scrubs and Arrested Development. He was writing his own Fred Hampton screenplay, which he had shown to comedian Jermaine Fowler, who connected him to King.
"Comedians and people who work within the comedy space, you know, we're very attentive, we keep our ears and our minds to what's going on in society, and I find when I speak to people who have a comedy background, they can hone in on things so sharply," Keith says. "I'm not surprised that Will was working on a Fred Hampton movie or Shaka was able to take our story and make it into a masterpiece.
Initially pitched by the Lucas Brothers as Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist or Martin Scorsese's The Departed set in the world of COINTELPRO, Judas and the Black Messiah follows the magnetic leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) as his Chicago branch of the Black Panthers is infiltrated by William O'Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), a car thief offered a deal when arrested by the FBI for impersonating an officer to jack a vehicle. O'Neal is told he can avoid jail time and make money if he provides information on Hampton, who J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen, in a lot of makeup) has deemed an existential threat to the United States.
"It's a movie about in a lot of ways examining what a socialist culture in Fred Hampton, who practiced that in the way he lived his life," King explains. "And also an exploration of what a capitalist culture looks like because William O'Neal was all about me and what I need. He was very much an individualist."
The Lucas Brothers had come to the stories of Hampton and O'Neal while taking an African American studies course in college, and had always wanted to transition from stand-up into screenwriting. By focusing on both Hampton and O'Neal, they found they would be able to tackle the greater systemic forces that brought these men together.
"I felt like going through Bill's perspective, you're almost allowing for him to act as the audience. He doesn't know where he stands, and the audience where they stand in relation to the Panthers and their activism, versus the media's portrayal of them as terrorists," Kenny says. "As he grapples with how to process the Panthers, I think the audience grapples with it as well and, ultimately, history has to grapple with its portrayal of the Black Panthers." Keith adds: "And Black revolutionaries in general."
King thought that the Lucas Brothers' pitch was the best he'd ever heard. "I could see how this was the only way that a movie about Fred Hampton could get made," he says. Hampton doesn't have the name recognition in Hollywood, where those in charge are resistant to making Black biopics in general. King also hadn't told the brothers that he too was obsessed with crime movies, and had trouble breaking into that genre because he had only made comedies.
Meanwhile, Berson had started researching a screenplay on Hampton in 2015 after coming across details about COINTELPRO while pursuing another project about Puerto Rican nationalism in the 1960s. His draft didn't focus on O'Neal at all. Instead, he envisioned a structure almost like Michael Mann's Heat where Hampton and Hoover were constantly in conversation but never met. He reached out to Fowler because he had the idea he could attach a comedian to play the role of Hampton. "Fred Hampton was actually so incredibly funny and my early drafts had many, many feelings of set pieces that I felt had the same feeling of Chris Rock's Bring the Pain or Eddie Murphy's Delirious," he explains.
He and King never discussed that notion of Hampton while writing, but all three parties involved agree with that sentiment. "I think about [Martin Luther] King [Jr.] and I think about Hampton and I think about [Malcolm] X all the time, and they have a good command of set-up and punch. They could have very easily been stand-up comedians," Kenny says.
The screenwriters wanted to portray the many facets of Hampton, who Berson described as "as close as America gets to a secular saint." But the Panthers, according to King, didn't want him to be shown as a messianic figure to the extent that they vetoed the original title, Jesus Was My Homeboy. "He had gifts as an organizer, he had gifts as an orator, but at the end of the day he was a young Black kid trying to survive in a police state," Keith says. To that end, some of the most powerful scenes in Judas and the Black Messiah are those between Hampton and his girlfriend, Deborah (Dominique Fishback). There's a sweet flirtation to their early scenes that could almost be at home in a romantic comedy, rather than the fraught politically dense situation orbiting them.
For the Lucas Brothers, Judas was an outlet to explore meaningful topics without the shadow of the present day hanging over them. "Under Trump, I feel like comedy was very difficult. It was hard to make political points while you have this self-aware caricature of evil. It's so hard to have any political points that stick to this elusive target," Kenny says. "It was fun to move to drama where you can make points politically, look at history, and still critique our current administration."
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