Judas and the Black Messiah
hits theaters and HBO Max on Friday, Feb. 12. This conversation is a part of Complex’s Judas Week , a series of interviews featuring the cast and crew of Warner Bros.’ Judas and the Black Messiah , discussing one of 2021’s most anticipated films.
I was kind of surprised to see that you two had been pitching a film about Fred Hampton as far back as 2014. Take me back to what made you guys want to delve into Fred Hampton’s life.: We didn’t know much about Fred Hampton growing up. Once we got to college, we took this class on African-American history from 1865 to like the 1970s. There was a chapter on the Black Panthers and that was the first time we learned about Fred Hampton. We were taken aback by the story and just how tragic it was. It didn’t really go into details about his life, but a lot of it was basically about his death. Once you find out about that story, it’s impossible to shake.
Kenny Lucas: That’s not entirely true. We were taking film courses and we had come across this film called , which was about a guy who has to infiltrate a radical movement to take down the leader. And that film we watched in our sophomore year of college. And I think that was like the genesis of this film. We wanted to do something like that, but with Hampton. The Confirmist
Keith Lucas: We didn’t learn about William O’Neal until 2012. We read this book, The Assassination of Fred Hampton, and it [had] like a glimpse about William O’Neal. We were like, “Man, that’s a pretty interesting story as well.” We started doing a lot of research on William O’Neal; there wasn’t a lot of information but we were able to stumble across this interview that he did for Eyes on the Prize, and that was around 2013.
That’s when we started having the idea that, if we could just figure out the story of a film that intertwines William O’Neal with Fred Hampton, we’d have something. We started doing a lot of research and we found out that there was a Fred Hampton movie already in the works, so we just assumed that they would come from the perspective of Fred Hampton. We [realized that we have] to think of something a little different. That’s when The Confirmist came back to our head and we went at it from the perspective of the snitch.
Kenny Lucas: I think that was the genesis of it.
Keith Lucas: Right, right. So right around 2013, 2014, we started formulating an outline for Judas and the Black Messiah.
At that time, had you spoken with anybody in The Black Panther Party, any of his family members, or anything like that? Or was that just based off of your research?: We didn’t speak with the Panthers until Shaka [King] got involved, but before Shaka got involved, we just did a bunch of research and we were writing it on our own.
Talk about linking up with King and how you guys formulated a plan to get what we now have, : Once we had our outline and pitch deck in place, we were like, “OK, I think we’re ready to go out and pitch it around.” We went to a bunch of different places, studios, production companies. I don’t know if it’s because we weren’t great at pitching or because they didn’t really see the marketability of the idea, but we didn’t get any offers. That’s when we went back to the drawing board and we were like, “All right, I think we need to improve the package. We need to offer studios a little bit more. We were like, we need to link up with a filmmaker who can help translate our ideas into a more cinematic, minimalist cinematic way.” We had a list of people that we were thinking of, but we didn’t really pursue it vigorously until we worked with King in 2016 on his FX pilot. We worked with King and we just had good energy. It felt like a good working relationship. It felt like someone who we thought would understand our vision and we looked at all of his work and he was clearly very, very talented and clearly a very, very capable director. He shot up to the top of our list. Judas.
A couple months went by after we did the FX pilot, and we’re still working on our outline, trying to perfect it and perfect how we’re going to pitch it to him. We finally pulled the trigger, reached out to him and said, “We got this idea we want to pitch to you.” We invited him to our place in Hollywood, and for about three to four hours, we were pitching this idea that we had, and we would throw it all at him. We were like, “We want to make it like the 1970s crime, espionage, thriller, and the grain of
The Conformist or The French Connection. We want it to feel like, gritty and ‘70s, but we also want it to tell the story of Fred Hampton. We want to synthesize the two worlds.”
He was blown away by it. He said it was fucking brilliant. We can see his mind starting to turn while we were pitching the idea to him. And he’s a student of Spike Lee. He came in with his own language, cinematic language, that we weren’t necessarily aware of. We just vibed out for hours. Then we went back and forth on the larger treatment, around 50 pages. We were tweaking it and figuring out the structure of the story. And then we brought on another person, Will Berson.
Kenny Lucas: Berson, he was working on his own script. He had done a script about Fred Hampton and it was about 130 pages; it was done. He had a production company already involved. Our buddy, Jermaine Fowler, he’s a friend of Will Berson.
Keith Lucas: Jermaine’s in the movie as well. He knew we were working on ours and he knew Will was working on his. He made the connection and we read Will’s script. I thought it really, really great, but we had our version in our head that we wanted to come from the perspective of the snitch, so we basically synthesized. We used some elements of this script and we used a lot of elements of our outline. That’s how we finally put together the script for Judas and the Black Messiah.
Image via Warner Bros./Glen Wilson
When you’re writing and ideating, there are so many different Black actors that could hopefully step up to a role like this. Did you have somebody in particular that you were thinking of to play both Fred and William?: The first guy, William O’Neal, was LaKeith [Stanfield]. We all agreed immediately, LaKeith is going to be William. Shaka was convinced that Kaluuya needed to be Hampton. Initially, we didn’t have a person in mind, but once he said “Kaluuya” we were like, “Oh yeah, of course. He can bring that energy that we need.”
Kenny Lucas: We knew Jesse Plemons and Shaka knew Dominique [Fishback]. So the principals were pretty much set in stone-
Keith Lucas: At the jump.
Kenny Lucas: At the jump. We didn’t think we could get Martin Sheen for J. Edgar Hoover, that was a fucking… That was shocking and great. He’s fantastic as Hoover. The fact that we got what we wanted was incredible.
A lot of people know you from your stand-up. When you’re pitching this particular film, were they confused? Did that come up?: Yeah, I think that was a part of the sort of initial skepticism about whether or not this film works as a piece. I was looking at some of our past emails to our team, and I remember after a couple of rejections, I sent an email and said, “I think we’re going to need a filmmaker who has dramatic chops because I don’t think they’re taking us seriously.” I think that’s part of why we were getting rejected, because we’re seen as these comedians, especially like stoner comics. And unfortunately, in Hollywood, once you get put in the box, you’re in the box and you have to break out of it. I think we were well aware of that, and in 2013 we were like, “They’re putting us in a box.” We weren’t shying away from putting ourselves out there as stoner comedians, but we always knew we could do more. I always knew that we were intellectually capable of being-
Kenny Lucas: Filmmakers.
Keith Lucas: Yeah, being filmmakers and doing more than just stoner comedy. It was always important to us to get this story made, at least as the first thing to show people that we’re capable of doing more.
I’m kind of glad that I got the opportunity to speak with you guys because I hadn’t read the piece that you guys wrote about Kaizen for : I’m fascinated by history, and I feel like when you don’t know it, you’re not aware of certain things that happen, it tends to repeat itself. When you ignore certain trends, when you ignore certain injustices, you find yourself in that situation repeatedly. Vulture. It’s a very powerful piece. I didn’t realize how deep you guys really got into social issues for Black folk. Growing up. The PTSD and the depression that people get just from living in the hood, it’s a lot. Talk about the importance of a film or importance of telling the story of Fred Hampton right now in the America that we’re currently living in today.
[Take] police brutality, for example. That’s not a new issue. It’s been an issue since there have been police and Black people. I think it will continue to be an issue, but look at Breonna Taylor, a situation similar to her happened with Fred Hampton. They did an unjust police raid, unconstitutional, they shoot in the house, and she’s not committed any crimes. He’s not committed any crimes and they both die. It just repeats itself. I feel like when you create a piece of art that explores a very common injustice, you create more awareness about that injustice. You look back at the history and you say to yourself, “Holy shit.” And then you didn’t know. It makes it even sadder, in my opinion.
Keith Lucas: But it’s almost like these are stories that I think people need to know. Once I found out about it, it just made me more vigilant in making sure that we speak up a little bit more and use our platform to tell stories about Black issues and the things that we’re going through.
You want to make stuff that matters. You want to make stuff that’s going to affect people, not just emotionally but intellectually. And I think with Hampton’s story, it’s like once you know about it, it’s so visceral, it affects you emotionally. It affects you intellectually. And it makes you want to fight a little bit more.
[Hampton] was preaching a lot of things that people are fighting for right now. He was saying a lot of things that Bernie’s talking about. He was so ahead of his time and I feel like we finally caught up to Fred Hampton. I think the moment is now for people to really, really study his message and study his words and study what he was about. He was a visionary and I feel like his words need justice, his story needs justice, he needs justice.
Kenny Lucas: My thing is like, to this day the FBI still has the building named after J. Edgar Hoover. I think that that’s a testament to how disrespectful we’ve been to Hampton’s legacy. The fact that this guy actively participated in the assassination of an American citizen and saw no repercussions, and we still glorify this guy; makes me sick to my stomach.
Keith Lucas: Akua Njeri, she’s still around. She’s still here. You have to live in a world where we still recognize J. Edgar Hoover as some sort of authoritative figure. We need to move past that, and I think in order for Hampton to finally get the justice that he deserves, that the name needs to be removed.
Do you guys have plans on continuing on and taking on more films about social justice or social issues?: No doubt. We’re currently working on an outline, a story, maybe even a script eventually. It’ll be more of a prequel to the Hampton story where we examine COINTELPRO further but with King and his photographer, Ernest Withers, who was known as the father of the civil rights photography movement. He took some of the most iconic shots. And I’m talking about [the] “I Have a Dream” speech. I’m talking the Montgomery bus ride. I’m talking the most profound King photos. Just beautiful photos. He’s an amazing photographer, but turns out
Keith Lucas he was a fucking informant. I feel like so many people don’t know that he was an informant for the FBI. We want to do a film about it. It’ll be a film.
Kenny Lucas: We have this idea, we want to write a story and we don’t know if it’s a mini-series or a film, but we definitely want to write something about Sharpe James. So the second African-American mayor for Newark, New Jersey. We just think that his story is so complex and compelling and he started out as a civil rights leader, but he had a bit of a downfall. He’s still revered in Newark.
Keith Lucas: We’re trying to stay active in comedy and drama. Just do it all really.
That’s a perfect segue into your : I think the concept of a nerd has evolved since the ‘80s. It’s a bit more expansive now, it’s a bit… It’s almost like we don’t even have a true definition anymore. But also like, I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything from the perspective of Black nerds. We’re nerds, too. We’re dorks. We’re weird. To be Black is very expansive. We can be a lot of different things. Even with Urkel or Revenge of the Nerds reboot. What drew you guys to bring back this film in particular? The original film was pretty un-PC. How will that change?
Keith Lucas Donald Glover, we just wanted to sort of take it from that perspective. We think it could be somewhat innovative, but we’ll see what people think.