The Lucas Brothers Reveal the Real Hero of ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’
Ahead of the Oscars, the comedy duo behind the film try to unpack how Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield somehow both ended up as “supporting” actors.
Keith and Kenny Lucas, the twin comedians better known as the Lucas Brothers, had been trying to turn the story of Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton into a movie for years before anyone started taking them seriously.
“We went around town, pitched the idea and got a bunch of rejections,” Kenny Lucas explains on this week’s episode of The Last Laugh podcast. Then they met director Shaka King on a TV pilot project that never came to be. As Kenny explains, “He was directing and we were acting in it.”
“I wouldn’t call that acting,” Keith Lucas chimes in with a laugh.
“Shaka was doing his best with our acting ability, but we became friends and we felt very comfortable going to him with our idea and we pitched it to him and he fucking dug it,” Kenny adds. “And then the rest is history, man.”
Judas and the Black Messiah premiered on HBO Max in February and at this month’s Oscars it’s up for five awards, including Best Picture, Best Cinematography, and Best Original Screenplay for the script, which is credited to the Lucas Brothers along with King and co-writer Will Berson.
The other two nominations both fall in the Best Supporting Actor category where frontrunner Daniel Kaluuya as “Black Messiah” Hampton will compete against his co-star Lakeith Stanfield as the film’s “Judas,” FBI informant William O’Neal. Even Stanfield appeared puzzled by the surprise nomination since he had been competing as the film’s lead, posting on Instagram, “I’m confused too but fuck it lmao.”
If the two title characters are both “supporting” players, then does Judas and the Black Messiah even have a protagonist? The Lucas Brothers use their hilariously dark senses of humor to answer that question and everything else we wanted to know about their unique journey from stand-up comedy to the Oscars.
Below is an excerpt from our conversation and you can listen to the whole thing—including how the twin comedy duo almost “split up” and the huge movie projects they have coming up with Judd Apatow and Seth MacFarlane—right now by subscribing to The Last Laugh on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google, Stitcher, Amazon Music, or wherever you get your podcasts and be the first to hear new episodes when they are released every Tuesday.
Do you think that some of the resistance that you were facing [with Judas and the Black Messiah] had to do with the fact that you are known as comedians and that this is not a comedic story?
Keith: Oh yeah. I’m sure there was some apprehension from other executives because we were comedians
Kenny: And we’re not just comedians, we’re comedians who smoke weed. “Should we trust them with 20 million dollars?”
When you call your stand-up special On Drugs you’re kind of setting yourself up for that.
Keith: Yeah, you’re not being subtle. So yeah, I’m sure there was a lot of apprehension and rightfully so. And also this was our first time pitching a movie like this to the industry. So we weren’t great at it.
Kenny: It was a comedy of errors, but the best decision we made was hooking up with Shaka.
Keith: I mean, he’s one of the best out right now. And we were fortunate enough to just get that opportunity to work with him and realize that he’s the person that was going to get us over the hump. So it worked out perfectly.
So you said you were familiar with Fred Hampton’s story for a long time. You have this comedy background, but you also both went to, or at least started, law school. Do you feel like even that limited experience informed your ability to really dig into this story?
Kenny: Oh yeah. I think as I hated law school, it made me a much more principled researcher. Law school made me love footnotes. I mean Mank got his own movie and 10 Academy Award nominations. I wouldn’t say he’s a footnote, but he is a footnote in reference to Orson Welles. So that kind of like mentality of looking for those small stories I think I got from law school. And I would say that that helped us find William O'Neal’s story for sure.
So that’s sort of the other side of the coin. If you knew about Fred Hampton, then when did you find out about Bill O’Neal and decide that he was going to be such a big part of the story?
Keith: So we found out about Bill, it must have been around 2012, 2013. When you learn about Fred Hampton, you learn about some key moments. You know the FBI was involved with his assassination, but you don’t really know the details. So we started reading this book The Assassination of Fred Hampton by Jeffrey Haas and there were a couple of pages dedicated to William O'Neal and his story. And it just sparked intrigue immediately. We just started thinking, wow, this kind of feels like an espionage story. Then there was a transcript that we found of the Eyes on the Prize interview, the interview that’s featured in the film, and we were like, this is a crime thriller! How he got recruited, how he infiltrated, The social political context, how he described it during the time and his admiration for Fred Hampton. It was just a lot in there that we felt could work as a film.
The film has been described as radical. And to me, what makes it so radical is the fact that it is this compulsively, entertaining crime thriller that anyone, whether you’re interested in this subject matter or not, is going to find entertaining. And then through that, you’re getting all these ideas in there. So was that something that you guys really thought about? Like, we want to make this appealing to as wide an audience as possible?
Kenny: We wanted to make a film that people watched. I think that that’s a part of the compromise that you make when you’re doing art. This is a business and you want it to reach as many people as possible. But in that intention, there was also an intention to ensure that we properly represented Fred’s message so that the film does work as a sort of didactic piece of art where you can learn something.
Yeah and a lot of people have been able to see it especially because it ended up on HBO Max. I’m sure there are some mixed feelings about that in terms of it being a movie that you imagined being in the theaters and then ended up on this streaming service. But I think there is something positive about it in that it probably reached a lot of people that may not have seeked it out in theaters otherwise.
Keith: Absolutely. HBO Max played a large role in allowing for people who probably wouldn’t have gone to the theater to see it, to watch it. And ultimately, that’s a good thing. We want a lot of people watching the film by any means necessary.
I was wondering if you guys started hearing from people the morning of the Oscar nominations when it had suddenly disappeared from HBO Max.
Kenny: Yeah, excellent timing on the part of Warner Brothers. I’m sure they weren’t expecting the six nominations.
Keith: I think it’s something they learned in business school, like counterintuitive marketing, some Harvard Business School stuff where they take the product away during the height of advertising.
The other obviously huge surprise Oscar morning, probably the thing that got the most attention, was the double nomination for Lakeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya in Best Supporting Actor. And the joke that morning was like, wait a minute, if they’re both in the title of the movie and they’re both supporting actors, then who’s the lead of this movie? So now that I have you guys, the writers, I have to ask you, who’s the protagonist of this movie?
Keith: I say it’s a hero’s journey for capitalism. Capitalism wins at the end of the day, so I would say capitalism’s the lead.
Kenny: Yeah, I think it’s an ensemble piece, but it’s told through the perspective of William O'Neal. So he’s our main character. The lead/supporting thing is a sort of an artificial distinction created by awards organizations. So sometimes we superimpose that on how we’re supposed to do narratives and it becomes a de facto way we see storytelling. But it’s an artifice.
Yeah. I mean, Lakeith seemed confused as well about how he ended up in supporting actor.
Keith: You know, ultimately a nomination is a nomination. I mean, they were all sort of supporting this larger narrative that we were trying to tell. So I can see the argument why they are supporting characters.
If they had nominated Martin Sheen [who plays FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover] as best lead actor, then you would know there was a problem.
Keith: [laughs] Now, that would have been a big surprise.
Kenny: That would have been a shocker!
Next week on ‘The Last Laugh’ podcast: ‘Broad City’ co-creator and co-star Abbi Jacobson.