Awards Daily talks to Will Berson, co-screenwriter of Judas and the Black Messiah, about working with director/co-writer Shaka King and the Lucas Bros., and what Bill (LaKeith Stanfield) and Fred (Daniel Kaluuya) have in common.
You don’t really think of Judas and the Black Messiah and think “comedy.” The story of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) being betrayed by FBI informant Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) is a tragic one, on both sides of the coin.
But surprisingly, the brains behind the Judas team—including director/co-screenwriter Shaka King, story by the Lucas Bros., and co-screenwriter Will Berson—all have a background in comedy. This comes out in little moments in the film, whether it’s Bill using a phony cop badge to steal a car or, like a seasoned comedian, when Fred nearly heckles someone when they get up and leave during one of his speeches.
In my interview with Berson, I learned that part of Fred Hampton’s engaging personality was his sense of humor, maybe the key to his universal appeal. Ironically, Berson, King, and the Lucas Bros., were tasked with developing one character, completely sure of himself, and another who tragically may never have gained such a privilege.
Awards Daily: You have a background in comedy, writing for Nickelodeon, Scrubs, and my personal favorite, Amazon’s Sea Oak (with that bonkers performance from Glenn Close). What was it like making the leap from lighter fare to this incredibly intense story?
Will Berson: It started a while ago. I definitely sharpened my teeth in comedy, taught and performed at UCB for years, and moved to LA as a writing assistant on Scrubs and wrote an episode later. But I feel like also, in the mid-aughts, I was mostly just watching dramas. The holy trinity for me was The Sopranos, Deadwood, and The Wire. I feel like it was maybe a particularly low point for television comedies, in terms of all being about white middle-class twentysomethings complaining about how hard it was to be a white middle-class twentysomething. I kinda felt like I lived that; I didn’t need to watch it on TV. I started writing dramas just because that was more of what I was interested in, in watching and making. And then serendipitously I ended up taking a class through the Humanitas Prize with David Milch and anytime I thought I had written something good enough to share with him, I sent it, and never heard from him, and then five years later I got a call from him, and I ended up developing an hour-long pilot with him about the founding of the Johns Hopkins Medical School in 1893, which is a really crazy story. That was so much more gratifying for me than most of the comedy stuff I’d done. Not for any intrinsic reason, just because the way the market was demanding TV comedies be then. And then I started writing other dramas on spec. So it wasn’t just sort of a sudden jump. The Lucas brothers and Shaka, we all have backgrounds in TV comedy. A big part of that is how incredibly funny Fred Hampton was and how that was part of his charm.
AD: There are funny moments in it.
WB: The really crazy thing is that I had written a spec script [on Fred Hampton], and through a friend at UCB, I got it to Jermaine Fowler [actor/writer/comedian], and unbeknownst to me, Jermaine gave it to Shaka, because he knew Shaka and the Lucas Bros., were trying to develop their own story. It’s complete serendipity of how it came about through Jermaine, which is pretty incredible.
AD: I read that, that you were kind of doing your own thing and serendipity strikes and you start working together. Were your scripts very different?
WB: They were pretty different. What he and the Lucas Bros., showed me was a 10-page outline, and I had a full draft of a script. They had a structure in theirs. Mine wasn’t a traditional biopic per se, but more traditional, and the main foil was J. Edgar Hoover. I was trying to humanize him, not make him sympathetic, but humanize him. His boyfriend Clyde Tolson was in really bad shape, and I was exploring the reason J. Edgar Hoover was persecuting homosexuals and Black people was because everybody knows he was gay, but most people don’t know that his father was half-Black. It was more peeling away the layers of Hoover as the foil. So then, I met with Shaka, and he said, I think it should be more The Departed, which I thought was brilliant. And even when we met, I thought, oh god, but can we center the rat? Will they forgive us for that? But he convinced me, and I think it’s much better for it. I think the general period to focus on in Hampton’s life and the general beats were remarkably similar between my script and their outline.
AD: What was the writing process like, once you started to put everything together?
WB: Shaka rented a place in LA. We spent a week, just me and Shaka, totally looking at their structure, looking at my script, and taking pieces of each, and filling up a wall with sticky notes. I went off and turned that into an outline, and he and I passed it back and forth. And then I went off and wrote an unwieldly, mammoth first draft that he chopped up and streamlined. And then we passed that draft back and forth, and you know, were lucky enough to get Ryan Coogler on board and Charles D. King. Then it sort of fell into the more traditional development process with studios and producers attached.
AD: How did you balance Fred’s narrative with Bill’s? Daniel is getting all of the Supporting Actor love, but I think both of them as leads. Do you think their stories, even though they are vastly different—do they mirror each other in some way?
WB: That’s a great question. Absolutely, and that’s part of the real tragedy. They were both from Maywood, from the West Side suburb of Chicago. Same generation. And I think one of the things we wanted to drive home, without making O’Neal sympathetic, just making him real and human, is if his childhood was a little bit different, he might have been Fred Hampton. And if Fred Hampton’s childhood was a little bit different, he might have been William O’Neal. I think that’s there. I don’t think that’s artistic license on our part. That’s intrinsically there and that’s what fuels the whole dynamic; it was sort of a gift that fell in our lap historically. That takes care of the lion’s share of the foundation of the relationship.
I’m biased obviously, but I’m definitely chagrined that LaKeith isn’t getting more awards love, because Daniel is phenomenal, but they compliment each other in such an eerie, heartbreaking way. Each one’s performance sort of buttresses and enhances the other’s, in a way that they’re really co-dependent.
In the development process, executives asked, “What’s Fred’s arc? Maybe he should start off not good at public speaking.” We were like, he was leading the NAACP youth chapter when he was 14. He was preternaturally political and eloquent and brave and courageous, and we talked about wanting to avoid hagiography with him, but I really think he’s kind of an American saint. One of the things I always thought about was Amadeus—it’s Mozart via the resentful rival. Obviously not quite the dynamic O’Neal and Hampton have, but we’re coming in through this audience surrogate of this guy who’s less than, because everyone is less than Hampton or Mozart.
AD: I think part of his arc might have to do with his love interest Deborah (Dominique Fishback). He’s very sure of himself, but she asks him to think about things in a different way. That was something small that I really liked.
WB: I certainly hope that there’s some evolution in the character, but not what studios traditionally wanted, not what seemed capital A arc-y to them.
AD: He has so much growth in it, just through going to prison, coming out. I thought his relationship with Deborah was important, in addition to of course his relationship with Bill. Bill is such an interesting character. He almost seems to have fun being an informant, but he cares about Fred and the group. How did you tow the line in making the audience wonder what his true feelings are?
WB: A big legacy newspaper, I can’t remember the review, initially said that LaKeith’s performance wasn’t that good, kind of hollow, but then you realize how brilliant that was, that it’s a character without a center. He’s a con man and he does enjoy some of it. I think playing both ends against the middle, he ends up getting suffocated, literally suicidal from the tension. I feel like we intentionally don’t tow the line—the line is always blurred.
AD: Yeah—yeah, yeah.
WB: I feel like he didn’t get [revolutionary politics] in the end. He came within a millimeter of getting it, and that’s the real tragedy. His conman pathology constantly playing both ends against the middle and that inevitably collapses on him. He’s a shapeshifting conman—there is no real O’Neal. There’s never any solid ground underneath him, and that’s part of his downfall.
AD: I was shocked when we learned what happens to him. The real-life footage was so effective. How much did knowing his fate drive the writing? I’m sure a lot, but was that always in the back of your mind? That would be hard to write this character and not be constantly thinking about where he ends up.
WB: Obviously I knew it all [what happens to Bill] with my draft with Shaka. The Lucas Bros., knew, and that week when Shaka and I were in Silver Lake, at one point, we were sitting at a table with my laptop, and we were like, why did he kill himself when he did? We looked it up, and it was the day that Eyes on the Prize aired. That certainly made it seem so much more symbolic. As an ultimate downfall destination, it guided us, but I felt like we were going there anyway.
Judas and the Black Messiah is streaming on HBO Max.