Oscar nominee profile: Original Screenplay ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ as an audience-pleasing thriller

Director Shaka King and television writer Will Berson had never previously met, but they decided to blend together their individual scripts chronicling the life of Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton and turn them into a political thriller. King and Berson (along with comedians Kenny Lucas and Keith Lucas who co-wrote the original story) for “Judas and the Black Messiah” have found themselves with their first Academy Award nominations for Best Original Screenplay.

Berson and King’s acclaimed script will now be competing with Aaron Sorkin‘s historical drama “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” Emerald Fennell‘s genre-bending “Promising Young Woman,” Lee Isaac Chung‘s family memory piece “Minari” and the drama “Sound of Metal” written by Darius Marder and his brother Abraham Marder.

The script for “Judas” came to the screen in a strikingly circuitous way. As writer Will Berson was writing a straight biographical spec script on Hampton, at the same time King, unbeknownst to him, was outlining a Hampton film with the Lucas brothers. Introduced via a mutual friend, King and Berson spent a week at an Airbnb marrying their two scripts together, chipping away again and again that material that wasn’t essential to the story.

The breakthrough came when they realized that, for the film to become more than your standard biopic, they had to tell the story from a different angle, centering their story instead on undercover informant Bill O’Neal (Oscar nominee LaKeith Stanfield) who had to ultimately betray Hampton (nominee Daniel Kaluuya) to the FBI. That one move made all the difference, turning the film from a respectful biography into an audience-pleasing thriller without sacrificing the important social and political points that both writers sought to make. Though the incidents captured in the script mirrored history and many moviegoers would know how it’s going to end, it’s the journey that King and Berson provide for us that makes all the difference.

In addition to their Academy Award nominations, King, Berson and the Lucas brothers were also honored with an Original Screenplay nomination from the Writers Guild of America. The first Best Picture nominee produced by an all-Black team of producers, “Judas and the Black Messiah” invites audiences to come for the thriller but stay for the message in a script that could bring this top-notch writing team their first Oscars.

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