Judas and the Black Messiah is a topical biopic about the FBI assassination of Black Panther Fred Hampton. It’s got a powerhouse cast, led by Lakeith Stanfield and Oscar-nominated Get Out star Daniel Kaluuya; and it’s produced by Black Panther overlord Ryan Coogler. A prestige project with a pulse, the film is destined to make as big a splash in the Fox News outrage machine as it does with Academy voters and audiences in general.
So, how in the world could such a high-pedigree dramatic thriller have been co-written by standup comedy cohorts the Lucas Brothers?
As it turns out, Judas and the Black Messiah is a fitting culmination for—and stress test of—all the skills the pair has accumulated in their careers thus far.
Before their 2017 Netflix special, On Drugs, and before their breakout moment as dorm roommates in 2014’s 22 Jump Street, the Lucases always had ambitions to break into filmmaking. Only after they first became popular enough as standups to tell jokes on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon in 2012, though, did they begin to think about what kind of film they might actually want to make.
As they started considering stories they might like to tell, Hampton’s was the one that resonated the most. “It always sort of struck us as insane that this person, a citizen, was killed by the state, and there’s direct evidence of it, and it wasn’t really spoken about,” Kenny Lucas tells me over the phone.
The pair first learned of Hampton, the charismatic young leader who was drugged and gunned down in a 1969 police raid, during an African-American studies course in college. Hampton’s story always struck a chord, but once they landed on him as a film subject, they did some heavy research to grasp the bigger picture. They read The Assassination of Fred Hampton by attorney Jeffrey Haas, scanned all the COINTELPRO files they could find online, and thumbed through several books about the Black Panthers, especially the Illinois chapter, of which Hampton was chairman.
The turning point in their fledgling project arrived, though, when the Lucases stumbled upon the 1980s Civil Rights docuseries, Eyes on the Prize, and its hour-long interview with an FBI informant named William O’Neill. Hearing O’Neill recount his duplicitous role in bringing down Hampton inspired the pair creatively.
“Once we came across William O’Neil,” Kenny says, “we just felt like it was the perfect structure for a film.”
Now armed with a sturdy framework, the brothers started plugging away at a screenplay about O’Neill (Lakeith Stanfield) infiltrating the inner circle of Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and the Panthers.
Unlike many other projects the Lucases were working on at the time, or have worked on since, this story held the additional challenge of being accountable to a highly sensitive piece of history. The two worried about underdeveloping certain aspects or the story, or embellishing others.
For instance, while they wanted to present O’Neill as a tragically flawed hustler, there were certain activities he participated in that were so egregious, including them would have squashed any chance of audiences retaining even a shred of empathy for him, so these were omitted. Rather than depict O’Neill torturing a Black Panther, ostensibly to weed out a rat, the writers include a separate informant placed in another chapter of the Panthers who tortures an innocent person to burnish his own credibility. It’s a have-your-cake-and-eat-it solution that accurately portrays the despicable carnage the FBI unleashed on the Panthers, while possibly keeping the audience from fully despising O’Neill.
One thing the Lucases were absolutely determined to not water down, however, was Hampton’s historic animosity toward the police, which included advocating violence against them. Sure enough, this element of the film made it through to the final cut, and is likely to be the most controversial aspect of its release—the part that makes talking heads on Newsmax explode.
“We were very committed to portraying Hampton in the most authentic and honest way possible,” Keith Lucas says. “We didn’t want to shy away from his politics, so we borrow heavily from actual speeches to showcase his point of view. There was a concern—especially on the internet—that we would soften Hampton’s message, or the Marxism, or his rhetoric against police officers, and it was a major goal of ours to not do that.”
Ultimately, the Lucas brothers weren’t the only screenwriters with a passion for bringing Hampton’s story to the screen. Writer Will Berson was separately working on a more comprehensive screenplay about Hampton’s life at the same time. (The two visions would be merged together with the help of director Shaka King.) Even in the consolidated story, though, Warner Bros didn’t push back on the filmmakers’ unflinching portrayal of Hampton—aided by cultural consultants such as Hampton’s fiancée, Akua Njeri, and various surviving Panthers–for the sake of luring in the Blue Lives Matter crowd. (Let’s face it, that crowd was never coming to this movie anyway.)
After seeing so many real-life negative depictions of police over the past year, from the killing of George Floyd to the difference between how officers treated Black Lives Matter protesters and Capitol rioters, perhaps the filmgoing public is more primed than ever to identify with the conditions that radicalized Hampton in the first place.
“Fred’s message was that if you want change, it’s going to take everybody,” Kenny Lucas says. “You can’t have a subsection of Black militants enact a policy change. You can’t even have a subsection of white liberal militants enact policy change. It’s gonna take a whole coalition of people who are committed to fighting, and I think we’re seeing that now. That’s why this film is coming right on time.”