One might not expect that the genesis of Judas and the Black Messiah originated with twin brothers whose stock and trade is in stand up comedy, but the Lucas Bros. (Keith and Kenny) are full of surprises. I took a crash course on their rising careers before meeting with them and found their work (especially their 2017 Netflix special On Drugs) to be some of the most pointed socially conscious comedy/commentary that I have seen in recent years. These two Jersey fellas have many a trick up their sleeve, including an animated series, and work both in front of and off camera. Not only are they hysterically funny, but they are flexible, erudite, and clear-eyed about the world we live in.
As I was interviewing them, I quickly came to believe that we will be hearing from them for years to come, and that their WGA nominations for their work on Judas (which I consider the film of the year) is only the beginning.
Awards Daily: When I first read through the credits your PR supplied me with, I was confounded. I thought, how in the world are these two comedians involved in something like Judas and the Black Messiah? [Laughs] But then when I started to sample your work and all the pointed social commentary contained in it, I started to understand how your involvement makes sense. So, to start us off, how did you get involved in the project?
Kenny: We got into Fred Hampton in college. We got to know his story in an African American Studies course. His story was fascinating to us – how he was the victim of a state ordered assassination. That always struck us. Once we got into entertainment, one of our goals was to get a movie (about Fred) made.
Keith: We were in the throes of stand-up our first 2-3 years, but around 2012-2013, we started to circle back to the Hampton story and thinking, how can we get this made? We started doing more research. We read this book, The Assassination of Fred Hampton by Jeffrey Haas, as well as the book Black Against Empire. We watched speeches and documentaries about Hampton, just doing meticulous research. We then discovered the transcript of the Eyes on the Prize video that’s featured in the film. We didn’t see the video, just the transcript. We started reading it religiously. We must have read it a thousand times. We thought, this is the structure of a film. This can be the backbone of a crime thriller about Fred Hampton. We wanted to avoid the traditional biopic tropes. We just thought, we’ve seen he cradle to the grave biopics so many times, how can we invert that? How can we do something that’s stylistically different but can also spread the message throughout the film?
We thought a crime thriller would be the best way to package the story. We wrote out a pitch deck and we had it all figured out. When we started pitching it around town, we got a bunch of rejections. So, we went back to the drawing board to try to strengthen the package and increase our odds of making the sale and we realized we needed to link up with a filmmaker who could take it to the next level. We were fortunate to work with (Judas director) Shaka King on a comedy pilot for FX. We had a great working relationship – we were laughing and vibing throughout. We realized he was immensely talented and had all the expertise that we needed to get this film made. He shot to the top of our list in terms of who we wanted to work with. We asked him to come over to our place so we could pitch him the idea.
Kenny: He came to our place in Hollywood and he got it instantly. (Judas co-screenwriter) Will Berson was also working on his own Fred Hampton film and then eventually we all got hooked up together. Very serendipitous.
AD: Will and Shaka have the screenwriting credit whereas the two of you have the “Story By” credit. Can you talk about how the credits were decided?
Kenny: In our case, I think it makes a ton of sense. We wrote the initial story treatment and the pitch deck. We pretty much outlined some of the major story beats and the decision to tell the story from the perspective of Bill (O’Neill). Those were our key contributions to the script, but because Will had already written script and Will and Shaka went off and redeveloped Will’s script with our structure, it just makes sense that they get the screenplay credit and we get the story by credit.
Keith: I think it’s very fair.
AD: Telling the story from Bill’s perspective is a unique choice. He’s the weasel, he’s the Judas. But it’s not as simple as him being just a bad guy. He’s very conflicted about what he’s doing – not just because infiltrating Hampton and the Black Panthers for the FBI is dangerous, but because it affects him at his core to be doing this.
Keith: That is what we were drawn to Bill’s character to begin with. I didn’t just see him as this weasel, although he was kind of like that, I also thought there was this other layer to him that grappled with the decisions he was making. During the (Eyes on the Prize) interview, you kind of get the feeling that he doesn’t have any feelings regarding what he did. You get the belief he was comfortable in his decision making, and he comes off as a super villain. Then you realize this guy killed himself after the interview then you start to rethink how you saw the interview initially. He was internally grappling with something he wasn’t willing to externally express. That makes his character way more compelling. Some people do see him as a villain and a weasel, but I was able to see him as a human being, ultimately. He made choices that he came to regret, but those choices led to the death of a great person.
AD: With Lakeith Stanfield playing Bill and Daniel Kaluuya playing Fred, you got two of the best actors working to play the leads. What was it like watching your work come to life?
Kenny: It was such a surreal experience. We were all thinking Lakeith from the beginning – I know Shaka had a relationship with him previously – we just thought he’d be perfect. And Shaka was a huge proponent of Daniel Kaluuya. We did not object. (Laughs). He’s such a phenomenal actor. To see them embody the roles of Bill and Fred It was unreal.
Keith: Even at the table read, you could see their dynamic and feel their synergy together. They are two of the greatest young actors out right now. It is such a privilege and an honor to play a small part in their story, in their trajectory as actors. I think they knocked it out of the park. On top of that, Dominique Fishback (as Fred’s girlfriend, Deborah Johnson) was revelatory. I remember when Shaka and Will finished the script and they sent it back to us, we were told to make Deborah’s character more robust. This is before I knew Dominique was cast in the role. She’s such a great young actress. She just bounced off of Lakeith and Daniel so well. She ended up being the heart and soul of the movie.
AD: It’s a wonderful performance by her. She makes the most of every second she has onscreen.
Keith: Every second onscreen. She steals the show, I think. And that’s tough to do when you’re acting up against Kaluuya – he’s the energy in the film. For her to be able to hold her own is crucial to the telling of the story.
AD: I think much the same way that Angela Bassett’s performance in Malcolm X helped humanize Denzel’s portrayal of an icon, Dominique does the same for Kaluuya as Hampton in this movie. Without that, he’s just the messiah. Their relationship brings him down to earth and makes him feel like a real human being.
Kenny: I think that’s absolutely correct. The first scene of Fred, he’s shown as almost superhuman. He’s giving this incredible speech, deconstructing capitalism, and the way Shaka decided to shoot it – almost in extreme closeup – it creates a very powerful image of him. But then once Dominique enters, you get a more complete version of him. He’s actually sitting down, slumped shoulders, with a cigarette in his hand – you can’t get any more human than that. Then Dominique immediately critiques his speech – it was just a brilliant juxtaposition of shots, where you see him as this great orator and in the next shot, he’s this guy getting cut down to size by his soon-to-be fiancee. Brilliant shot composition from Shaka and great writing too.
AD: You mentioned making the story of Hampton into a crime thriller, which I think was a great choice. What makes it even more interesting is we are used to seeing crime thrillers about the cops chasing the bad guys, but in Judas, the bad guys are the FBI and the Chicago police – which sort of turns your expectation, appropriately, on its head.
Kenny: That’s exactly what we were going for. The FBI, based on our opinion after doing the research and going through all the evidence that was provided, were behaving like gangsters. There’s no other way to put it. So, how do you visualize that in movie form? I think Shaka just nailed it. The way they ate their food, the way they are champing on cigars, and the the second to last scene, where they come in with a Tommy Gun and sprays the apartment – that’s all just straight mafia stuff. It’s so brilliantly captured. Shaka inverted so many of the common tropes we find in biopics and placed them into a procedural.
Keith: The ultimate goal was to subvert the tradition of biopics, but also to subvert the gangster movie. I think we were able to do both by telling the story from the perspective of the snitch to get a representative of law enforcement onscreen, and you can see how insidious they were in trying to take down a young kid.
AD: One of the most stunning things that I learned was during the postscript at the end that Fred was only 21 when he died. Daniel is a bit older than that, but he can play younger. But the thing that made him more believable is that the real Fred looked so much older than 21 when you look at photos and video from his time as a Black Panther. I suppose it’s not hard to imagine why Fred looked so far beyond his actual age.
Kenny: Every picture that I’ve seen of Fred – and I’m sure it has something to do with the picture quality, the year the photo was taken, and the type of camera that was used – he does look like he’s in his mid-20s. Based on the way he carried himself, the intellectual background he had, you could very easily mistake him for someone who was 27-28.
Keith: When I was younger, I thought he was in his 30s – just because of his oratorical skills. He was doing things that grown men can’t do by 21. I think it’s just how he carried himself and how disciplined he was. Bill O’Neill was just 17. They were basically kids being targeted and manipulated by a group of old men. Hoover was in his 70s, (FBI agent) Mitchell was in his mid-30s. These were grown men manipulating, targeting, and ultimately executing young black men. Very tragic.
AD: When Fred gives the speech where he says, “I am…a Revolutionary!,” it’s the best pregnant pause since Prince sang, “I never wanted to be you…weekend lover” in Purple Rain [Laughs] That scene…
Kenny: I just rewatched that scene – we were actually onset when that scene was being filmed – it’s crazy how much of the energy that was captured while filming and was able to translate onscreen. That’s a testament to the direction and also to the background actors. Their energy amplified the scene. And Kaluuya, man. God. You watch him deliver those words and it’s so compelling. There’s another part of the scene where he says, “Kill a few pigs, get complete satisfaction,” then there’s another pause there. He looks down and I think that’s the moment that he realizes, “I just signed my death certificate.” You can tell, why’s he making that pause? He knows what he just said and he knows cops are in the room.
Keith: You have to remember, he’s gone through Malcolm X, he’s gone through Medgar Evers, he’s gone through Dr. King, he’s well aware that he’s a target and that at any moment he can become a martyr. When he looks down, he recognizes that this is the end.
AD: I mentioned before that I began to understand your connection to this film through the social commentary that is steeped into your comedy. For example, your Netflix special, On Drugs, begins with a lengthy bit on Richard Nixon. And then there was a joke I saw the two of you deliver about the statistical likelihood of black men being shot by 34, and then the two of you deadpan, “We’re 33 now, so…” Which is painful and funny. How did you come to develop the type of comedy you do?
Kenny: For us, it’s just trying to speak about the things that really happen. To be honest and vulnerable and straightforward, but come at a topic from a skewed position, where you can talk about really dark shit, but make it kind of funny. I think you endear yourself to the audience when you talk about dark shit, but because you laugh at it, you give the audience the right to laugh at it. I think that breaks down so many barriers. I feel like the best comedians – and I’m not saying we’re the best – are always the ones that tap into that really dark spot, but they do not in a way that humanizes it and you’re just riding with them. Even a Seinfeld – his comedy is clean, but it’s dark when you really listen to it. Carlin or Pryor, these guys are savages on stage, but also very vulnerable and human. For us, even going through the Judas project, we’re trying to tap into that.
Keith: Being a comedian, you live within the contradictions. In the film, it’s basically a piece of heightened contradictions. On one side, you have a gu completely committed to this principles, and on the other side, you have a guy who’s amoral and doesn’t seem to have principles. Spotlighting contradictions is at the root of the comedy that we do. The juxtaposition between silly and serious is always factored into how we construct our jokes. The same thing applies to how we constructed the story, looking for contradictions. In comedy, you look for the silliness in it, but in drama, obviously, the consequences are way more serious.
AD: Oddly enough, my wife and I were watching Richard Pryor’s concert film Richard Pryor Live over the weekend, and one of the most painful and yet funny things he said during his set, almost as an aside, is that Mexicans have it a little bit better than black people because at least they have a county. I winced and howled at the same time. Black people don’t have a country. [Laughs]
Kenny: He’s right. That’s brilliant insight by Richard Pryor to point out the weird nature of race in America. He had a stream of jokes that were just so poignant.
AD: You guys are twin brother and you do so much work together. Do you ever get sick of each other? [Laughs]
Keith: Like any sibling relationship, we have our quibbles, we have our fights, we argue. Now that we’ve been in our careers for ten years, we certainly have some creative differences, but I think the beauty of it is being able to go on this crazy journey with a person that has shared a very similar life story. I always have a partner to talk about the crazy nature of Hollywood, of being a writer, of being a stand up – I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I accept that there’s always going to be disagreements, but the fact that we get to do it together outweighs that.
Kenny: I agree. The beautiful thing about being family is we always find a way to bounce back. Going on this journey with him, I’ve learned so much about who I am as a person. I wouldn’t change it for the world.
AD: Last question: What’s next?
Keith: We just trying to stay busy. We are working on a reboot of Revenge of the Nerds (with Seth MacFarlane), we’re working on a movie with Lord Miller, we also have a cartoon that we are working on with Seth.
Kenny: In the realm of drama, we are developing a story on William Sullivan, who was third in command at the FBI, and along with Ernest Withers and Bill Lawrence who worked with the FBI – it’s a story about Martin Luther King’s last year juxtaposed with Sullivan’s testimony against the FBI in 1977. That’s our next big project.
Sasha, Ryan, and Clarence have been stuck with me since April 27, 2018. Co-creator (with Ryan Adams) of the Reframe feature, staff writer, interviewer du jour, and a proud member of GALECA and the Indiana Film Journalists Association. I also scribe on boxing at NY Fights. My essay "My Black Grandpa" was shortlisted as "Best of Folklore" by The Bitter Southerner in 2018. My first work of fiction, "Eat 'Em Up, Tigers!" was published in Detroit Stories Quarterly in the 2020 summer edition.