Keith and Kenny Lucas were two of the writers on “Judas and the Black Messiah,” alongside Will Berson and the film’s director, Shaka King. The four were just nominated at the Oscars in Best Original Screenplay for the film.
The Lucas brothers spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Daniel Montgomery before the Oscar nominations about how the story of Fred Hampton and William O’Neal affected them personally, the influx of Black cinema in recent years and how the film is resonating today despite being a period piece. Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.
GD: Your work was recently nominated for a Writers Guild Award alongside Shaka King and Will Berson. Did it mean a lot to be recognized by writers in the industry for this?
Keith Lucas: Oh, yeah. It’s a huge honor. Being honored by your peers and being recognized by your peers is always something special. I didn’t even anticipate it. You get into the process of making movies and it’s hard to even anticipate awards but the fact that they did recognize us was a huge honor.
Kenny Lucas: Yeah, it’s huge. We come from a standup background, so to be a standup comedian nominated as a writer is also another privilege. I mean, you think about some of the greats like Richard Pryor and Mel Brooks and Amy Schumer, Judd Apatow. It’s just great to join that list.
GD: And to be writers with comedy backgrounds and to be nominated for this very dramatic film, was this a very different creative experience to working in comedy?
Keith Lucas: It’s funny you ask that because we worked with Will and Shaka and they also come from a comedy background and from a TV background. So it’s kind of similar to constructing an episodic show on TV. You have a group of writers working together to sort of figure out the story and it kind of felt like that a little bit. So even though it’s a very dramatic film, it still felt like we were all leaning on our comedy chops and our comedy background to help us figure this thing out.
GD: What first interested the two of you in wanting to tell Fred Hampton’s story? I know it goes back years of trying to get this movie made.
Kenny Lucas: I mean, it really goes all the way back to college. We went to college at The College of New Jersey. We were in our sophomore year 2004 and we were taking an African American Studies course and we came across Fred’s story and it just sort of blew our minds. I couldn’t believe that the state facilitated the assassination of a very young guy who is essentially exercising his constitutional rights. Not even essentially. Was exercising his constitutional rights. So it always struck me as just a very dark chapter in American history and I was always floored by the fact that not everyone was talking about it. It was just sort of brushed under the rug. So at that point, I was like, “I really would love to see more people talk about the story.” I think that that was the genesis of getting the movie made. So once we got into entertainment, one of our primary goals was to see that to the end and see it get made in its proper form.
GD: Working with Shaka and Will to get this movie made, I know it went through a lot of different iterations and forms and potential casting between when the idea first came about and when it eventually got made. Did the obstacles along the way ever feel kind of insurmountable at any point where you thought, “This is just not going to happen?” Or did it always seem to be progressing?
Keith Lucas: I mean, before Shaka got involved, when it was just Kenny and I and we were going around town and pitching it to production companies and to studios and getting rejections, yeah, we definitely felt like this might just be an uphill battle and maybe this is a movie that can never be made. But once Shaka got involved and once Will got involved, once Charles King got involved, once [Ryan] Coogler got involved, it definitely felt more promising. It definitely felt like, “OK, we have a shot here.” And even then, with all those people attached to it, it was still an uphill battle. I just think getting a movie made is tough but getting a movie made about a Black revolutionary socialist, it’s even tougher. But I don’t think that anyone let those obstacles stop them. I think because of our passion for Fred Hampton, I think people really wanted to see it through. So once all those people got attached to it and I knew they had the same love for Fred that we had, that passion carried us throughout the entire process.
GD: You mentioned that, of course, Fred Hampton was a Black revolutionary socialist. It feels like all those words together would have seemed completely outside of the general conversation and now there are Black socialists getting elected. Does it feel like there’s more openness to this story and to who he was and to what he represents now even than maybe a few years ago?
Kenny Lucas: When Hampton was on the scene, it was the Red Scare. It was this fear of communism and you couldn’t even mention you were that. So Hollywood sort of took up that same sort of mantle where they reacted negatively to the notion of socialism. But now with Bernie Sanders and [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] and the Democratic Party going a little bit to the left, I feel like socialistic types of programs are being more accepted. I mean, if you look at Social Security or anything like that, those are socialistic types of programs. So I think there’s just a more national acceptance of that sort of ideology and it allowed for us to make the film. I don’t think you can make this film 10 years ago. I don’t think it’s possible.
Keith Lucas: It’s also built on a lot of Black films that have come out that have spoken to the Black experience. You have movies like “Moonlight,” you have movies like “Selma,” you had all these great Black films that I think helped break down some of the barriers for us that allowed for our film to get made.
GD: And speaking of Black film, it would have seemed anomalous even 10 years ago to see this many films about Black experiences from Black filmmakers and Black writers and there are so many this year from this to “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” “One Night in Miami,” even “Small Axe,” which deals with some similar stuff in the U.K. Does it feel like an inflection point where there’s more of a media openness to recognize some of these stories and some of these complexities around our relationship with government and law enforcement?
Kenny Lucas: I think that there is certainly more acceptance on the part of the media but I think also, audiences are hungry for content that speaks to that experience. It’s not just a Black audience. I’m seeing people of all different stripes talking about “Judas,” just talking about “One Night in Miami,” talking about “Ma Rainey,” all those films, and it just feels like we’re finally being able to make art collectively in its most authentic fashion. Before, you’ll have a “Malcolm X,” you’ll have a “Do the Right Thing” and then you have five years go by and then you’ll have another big Black movie. But now it’s like it’s happening simultaneously and it’s very strange to me, really.
Keith Lucas: Yeah, this feels like a banner year. I mean, honestly, ever since “12 Years a Slave,” I just feel like it’s been sort of a watershed moment in Black cinema. You have “12 Years a Slave” and then you get “Selma,” “Moonlight,” “Get Out,” “Black Panther.” You get all these films that are, again, they’re all eclectic. They all speak to the Black experience from different angles and I think it’s just been an openness from audiences and from certain streaming sites that have allowed for Black content to thrive and I think it’s only getting better. More voices are being heard from not just men and women but from the trans community. You’re getting so many more voices being heard and sharing their experience and I think that that’s ultimately a good thing.
Kenny Lucas: And I think it’s true not just for Black cinema, but I think it’s true for Asian cinema. I think it’s true for Latinx cinema. I feel like it’s just been an explosion of multiculturalism in cinema and it’s the best for the art. The art is at its best when everyone has an equal opportunity to create unencumbered by systemic issues.
Keith Lucas: I mean, look at a film like “Nomadland.” A film like that wouldn’t have gotten any praise 10 years ago because doors weren’t open, but now you have a film like “Nomadland” that’s great and that’s from the perspective of a person of color and I just feel like we’re in a good time right now for cinema.
GD: And this story about Fred Hampton that you’re telling, it’s framed largely through the point of view of William O’Neal, the man who betrays him. Was that always something that you wanted to approach the story in that way, or did that come along as the process went along?
Kenny Lucas: I think for us, we were always more intrigued by that approach because we felt like it did a couple of things. One, it inverts the biopic formula where you go from the perspective of the larger-than-life hero, you know the beats, and then he dies tragically, and then you do something at the end. We always felt like William O’Neal’s perspective was different and fresh and it adds to that sense of paranoia that we’re trying to capture at that moment. This is a story essentially about COINTELPRO. I mean, it’s Fred Hampton, but it’s more of a story about ideas and I feel like by going through William O’Neal’s perspective, you capture the essence of the paranoia and the surveillance state and the notion that this guy is grappling with two sides. I just felt like it was more captivating from a narrative perspective.
Keith Lucas: Also, that juxtaposition between Bill O’Neal and Fred is so much stronger when you see it visually. You see someone like Fred Hampton who was completely committed to his beliefs, he wasn’t a coward, he was fearless, and then you have this other story of this guy who is the antithesis of Fred Hampton and I think you just tell a more powerful story when you see them side by side.
GD: Was it challenging to put yourself and get into that mindset of William O’Neal and to kind of consider him as this fully-fledged person, given that what he did was so basically despicable?
Keith Lucas: Oh, yeah. It was tough. The story itself is so tragic that you can’t help but just get saddened by the whole ordeal. Even trying to get into the headspace of William O’Neal, it definitely takes some years of your life. I’m pretty sure I started smoking a little bit more, I started drinking a little bit more. It’s a heavy story to carry and I see it with LaKeith [Stanfield]. He was struggling with it and I think it’s just a tough story in general. It’s a very tough story to deal with. So yeah, it was definitely difficult. I don’t know wanna speak for Kenny.
Kenny Lucas: I mean, the thing is, I was already in a pretty negative headspace when we were outlining the story, the Hollywood pressures and drinking and stuff like that. So I could sort of relate to this idea of being in a situation where you feel like forces beyond your control are dictating your life. I could understand that aspect of William O’Neal’s life. What I didn’t understand or what I could never understand is how he would allow for those same forces to kill someone who is seemingly really good. You can be manipulated by a system and it can be damaging to your life, but you don’t have to allow that system to kill others. I feel like William O’Neal sort of just let that happen and at no point did he try to warn Fred or give him a heads-up that they might kill him. So that, I just never understood.
GD: And the two of you have been very active and engaged with politics and American history of racism and inequality, and to now have this movie coming out at a time after this last year of COVID and protests, it sort of feels like it’s shined a blacklight on American inequality. What’s it like to have this movie coming out now and what do you think it reflects or contributes to the conversation about who we are?
Keith Lucas: I mean, it’s very surreal. We started to develop the story around 2012, 2013 after Trayvon [Martin] got murdered. It was a different time. Obama was president. It was a different energy around race issues. There were still some huge problems and it was the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement. So when we started to develop, these issues were baked into the genesis of the story. But to see it come out now on the heels of the protests, I didn’t anticipate it. It’s just crazy.
Kenny Lucas: And also the Capitol riots and the end of Trump. To have this film come out at that time, it’s unreal.
Keith Lucas: We reached out to Shaka in September. Trump was running for office but Trump wasn’t president, so in the development of the story, it’s hard to say we anticipated Trump and it came out right on time. I can’t even say we did that expertly. But it’s crazy that it’s coming out at this time. I think that these issues are pretty timeless, unfortunately, in America. I think that it’s pretty timeless. So it probably could have come out in 2028 and still would have been timeless. So it’s unfortunate that that’s the history of America, but it is what it is.
GD: The film is telling this history of Fred Hampton that hasn’t been as widely known as a lot of other civil rights leaders, and it’s a major awards contender, Daniel [Kaluuya] has been getting a lot of attention in addition to your nomination for the Writers Guild, potential Oscar nominations. What would it mean to have this story get that kind of amplification of being in that kind of award space and getting those Oscar nominations?
Kenny Lucas: Especially for Daniel to get nominated for playing Fred Hampton, for me, it would feel like I contributed positively to Fred’s legacy. We created this character based on his life and we use his speeches. It’ll be a validation that mainstream industry watched the film and said, “This guy deserves an Academy Award.” I mean, obviously, that goes for LaKeith and Dominique [Fishback] and Jesse [Plemons] and everyone in the cast who could potentially get nominated for an Academy Award. I’m not saying it will validate the experience because the experience is already amazing and I feel like we’ve honored Fred’s legacy and that’s the most important thing. But it would be another step in a direction of saying, like, “Wow, we really did this for Fred.”
Keith Lucas: Right. I just think about all of the talent that worked on this film from Sean Bobbitt as our cinematographer, Kristan Sprague as our editor. We just had so much talent from top to bottom and for any of them to get recognized I think would be just an honor because I think they deserve it. I think that it was so much talent on this production team and they really knocked it out of the park. So I hope more for them that they get nominated and get recognized for the work that they put into it in honor of Fred’s legacy.