In many senses, February 2021 is the perfect time for the movie Judas and the Black Messiah to drop. And our interview with the Lucas brothers showcases a poignant but crucial conversation surrounding Black freedom in the U.S.
Film is a vessel for bringing important historical tales to life. Where substance from books can fly over our heads, films smack us right in the face.
Warner Bros. Pictures’ new film does just that. Judas and The Black Messiah, releasing on February 12, chronicles the life and death of Chicago Black Panther Chairman, Fred Hampton, and William O’Neal, the FBI informant that aided in Hampton’s demise.
We interviewed The Lucas brothers, the Black screenplay writers duo from Newark. They told us why they had to tell this story and why it resonates today.
An interview with the Lucas brothers
KH: When you look at the current political landscape of the nation, you see that many of the policies and practices of Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party have moved into the mainstream lexicon of progressive platforms. That’s what makes this film’s story feel so current. Why was now the time to tell Fred Hampton’s story to the world?
Kenny Lucas: A story like this would have always been relevant. No matter if it was the seventies, eighties, nineties, or now. But I think what’s happening now, going all the way back to Martin and, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the Black Lives Matter movement. It rings even more relevant than it might’ve been before these events transpired.
Keith Lucas: Right. You know we started to develop this story right around the time of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice. So it’s unfortunate that almost every decade, there’s been a moment of brutality towards African Americans.
And the Hampton story is one of those stories that, again, it’s unfortunate, but it is almost timeless when you think about the Black experience in America and just how vicious the system has been toward us.
And it just so happens that our movie is coming out at a time where it’s at an all-time high where people are trying to actually confront the issues of racism in this country.
In review, it was essential for the Lucas brothers to tell the story in the way they did
KH: One interesting aspect of the film is the decision to tell the story also from the perspective of William O’Neil. I think telling it from his perspective as well, shows the duality of the concept of Black freedom in America.
On one hand, Hampton is fighting for political and economic freedom for all, while O’Neil is really just fighting for his individual freedom. Can you guys talk about the decision to tell the story this way and how the writing contrasts the figures?
Kenny: You’re one of the first to nail it. Like actually nail part of what was the philosophy behind going into his perspective. It is about freedom. It’s exactly about freedom and I’ll take it one step further.
When I was studying philosophy, my thesis was an interpretation of John Stuart Mill’s conception of liberty. Whether or not he committed himself to the negative conception of liberty which is more about individual liberty, meaning you don’t want any constraints on your person.
And then there’s a positive conception of liberty, which is more collective. Liberty where you try to augment everyone’s education so that you can be free in that regard. So Fred sort of represents the more positive conception of freedom and Will represents that negative form of freedom.
What we’re trying to make a statement about it, in America, it seems to be more of an emphasis on that sort of individualized conception of freedom, to the point where you’re willing to tear down minority groups just to make sure that a group of people maintain their power and their freedom.
And our argument is that we believe Fred’s conception of freedom is more conducive to general growth and happiness. And maybe we can do away with some of the anxiety that we feel as a result of how we’ve constructed our society.
I think a big part of it is an obsession with material and an obsession with profit. And an obsession with this individualized negative conception of freedom, right?Kenny Lucas
Keith: The entire ethos of America is premised on materialism and individualism. And this system, in order to protect itself, has to crush groups who may have a different viewpoint on what freedom means. So part of the reason for telling the story through Will’s perspective is that we feel in order to tell a more balanced story, you need to deconstruct both concepts of freedom. So I think you nailed it on the head.
The nuances in creating Black characters and telling real stories
KH: One thing that also fascinated me was that O’Neal’s perspective was never demonized in the film. You guys seemed to portray him as someone who was a product of his environment. By that I mean he’s someone trapped within the loop of the American criminal justice system. So his story could’ve been anyone’s.
Keith: Yeah, of course in time you look at Will and say he’s a snitch. He’s the most duplicitous or evil character that you can come up with. But when this was happening in real-time he was the person who was caught up in a system that didn’t value his life just like they didn’t value Fred’s life.
So I guess we wanted people not so much to sympathize with him. We weren’t looking for sympathy. But we were certainly looking for a more nuanced portrayal of him so that people can ask themselves tough questions. Like what would you have done if you were in that situation?
Everyone likes to believe that they would be Fred Hampton. But I can count on my hand the number of people that I’ve met who are like Fred Hampton. There aren’t too many people who are willing to die for their beliefs and who are willing to sacrifice themselves for the community.
I know more people who are very individualistic, very materialistic. And I’m of the belief that a lot of people would have probably done what Will did as opposed to what Fred did.Keith Lucas
Kenny: And I think it’s important also… how do you convey in a narrative sense, the pernicious nature of COINTELPRO and the state using the criminal justice system to manipulate an individual in order to assassinate another one?
Like how can you effectively portray that visually in a narrative sense and make it compelling? And I think that was another strong reason why we went through Will’s perspective.
The Lucas brothers tell us in this interview about the Black Panther party and telling Black history accurately
KH: The common narrative around the Black Panther party is centered around how violent of an organization they were. And that is a true mischaracterization of them. How important was it for you guys to put out the true image and character of this organization in the film?
Kenny: I think it was paramount. I feel like a big motivation for everyone involved in the project was to provide a more balanced perception of the Black Panthers, because I think it’s pretty much a fact that the national media apparatus worked in concert with the intelligence community to portray the Panthers as terrorists.
And this was done through local media, national press, through the newspaper, through film, you name it. Even if you go back to Forrest Gump and their brief interaction with the Panthers: it’s a Black guy yelling in a beret. It’s always been this caricature of what it meant to be a Panther.
And for us, it was the number one goal to present a more factually-accurate perception of the Panthers based on testimony. And based on the eyewitness reports and conversations with actual Panthers.Kenny Lucas
Keith: That’s why it was important to show the relationship between Fred and Mother Akua or Debra at the time. Because there was a lot of love that the Panthers wanted to spread. I think with Fred, his whole belief system was created on unity and love. And that gets lost.
Kenny: And I think with the white power structure, what they wanted to do was conflate Black Second Amendment rights with criminality and terrorism. So if we decide to openly defend ourselves against white supremacy, now we’re the villains. It was just a sleight of hand.
It’s like, if you’re not subscribing to King’s peaceful, non-violent ideology, then you’re a criminal. And I think that the state effectively brainwashed a large subsection of the American population to believe that in defending themselves they were terrorists.
The importance of displaying gruesome truths on screen
KH: Anyone who knows Fred Hampton’s story knows how this film will end. There has been an ongoing conversation in the Black community surrounding the display of our pain and trauma on screen.
Were you guys hesitant at all in including Hampton’s death in the film or do you believe America needs to understand what was done to this brilliant man?
Keith: In reading about the story and working on the script and being on set, it’s always traumatic. It’s triggering. It was an emotionally gut-wrenching thing to do. But we felt that in order to accurately tell his story we had to show it.
We didn’t show the actual murder but we showed most of it and we felt like America needs to understand how brutal they were. And maybe they already understand it but we felt like at least with the movie, you see this brilliant guy organizing across the city, trying to bring people together only to be taken out like an animal.
They took him out like he wasn’t a human being. We felt like in order to tell the most powerful version of the story, we needed to put that in there because it’s just a shock to the system.Keith Lucas
Kenny: When you really think about it, it was a crime against humanity. It was so vicious and I think Americans, especially white Americans, need to reflect more deeply on how they treated African-American’s who exercised their constitutional rights. And I think one of the ways to get them to reflect is to see it visually.
Keith: Think about what happened after the George Floyd video. It was so jarring, shocking, triggering and traumatic. And black people were aware of these images as young kids. We learned about slavery and we see the images of slaves whipped across their back. It wasn’t like these images are so impressed on our minds, and that’s why we fight hard for our freedom.
And for white folks, if they can just sort of look away and pretend like it’s not a part of the American way, we want to make sure they don’t look away so that everyone sees it and experiences it. Hopefully, that will leave for people to fight for more change.
The significance of historical research
KH: When creating the story for this film, how much historical research did you guys do to get this right, and how important was that process?
Kenny: To get a better understanding of the “Ghetto Informant Program.” That’s what they called it. But yeah we went through as much material as possible to try and convey the most accurate depiction of COINTELPRO and the use of black informants to take down “messianic figures.”
We really wanted to understand the mechanisms. And we didn’t want to make this like a souped-up crime procedure where you see them build gadgets. We wanted to focus on the relationships. The human element. The informant’s, the CI’s, the police officers, and the target.
We really wanted to try to mimic what was happening then. That’s why it was important for us to portray Hampton not as the civil rights leader that he has become in his death, a martyr.
But as the person that terrified the FBI and the Chicago police because they felt he was a terrorist due to his rhetoric. I think it was important for us to capture that aspect of Fred’s life.Kenny Lucas
Finally in this interview, the Lucas brothers explain the importance of getting Black history right
KH: History is a sea of stories just like this one that needs to be told. Especially when it comes to Black historical figures. Are there any other figures you guys would love to see on screen?
Keith: I would like to see something about Amiri Baraka. He’s a Newark poet and an activist who helped start the Black Arts Movement.
Kenny: He also ran for mayor a couple of times. He’s a very interesting figure.
Keith: Very interesting guy. Angela Davis. I think there needs to be a movie about some of the women from the Civil Rights Movement. They’ve been very underserved.
Angela Davis would be a perfect person to chronicle on the big screen because she’s had such a fascinating life and she’s still here. Like people can hear from her now, you know. So it should be an Angela Davis renaissance.
Catch Judas and the Black Messiah on February 12
We thank the Lucas brothers for their time and part in this important interview. Furthermore, we appreciate their part in telling a story about a Black leader killed by nefarious government powers.
Remember, the victors tell history And the victors will wash out the substance of the truth in order to keep their oppressive powers in place.
In this interview, the Lucas brothers explore a story not just intimately related to Black freedom movements in the U.S., but one that is particularly apropos to today’s climate.
If you have one takeaway from this interview with the Lucas brothers, remember that Black people’s freedom is all of our problems. And finally, catch Judas and the Black Messiah on HBO Max February 12.