behind the scenes

Finding the Judas in Judas and the Black Messiah

The Lucas Brothers explain how their story of Fred Hampton came to be about William O’Neal.

Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah. Photo: Glen Wilson/Warner Bros.
Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah. Photo: Glen Wilson/Warner Bros.
Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah. Photo: Glen Wilson/Warner Bros.

When one thinks of Hollywood biopics, the identical twin comedians Keith and Kenny Lucas do not immediately spring to mind. The former law students rose to fame by shedding their stuffy credentials to craft a stand-up career that culminated in the 2017 Netflix special On Drugs. They built a broader casual stoner aesthetic by earning roles in 22 Jump Street and the The Grinder, and helming the animated show Lucas Bros Moving Co. You’d be forgiven for not knowing that, since at least 2010, they’d been trying to turn a little-understood portion of Black history into the kind of sprawling Hollywood film that makes awards-seasons forecasters stir: a movie about Fred Hampton.

Unlike his predecessors and contemporaries — Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Kwame Ture — Hampton, the 21-year-old chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, has been largely confined to Chicago history books. He was a famed orator and a committed Marxist who instituted a free-breakfast program for Black West Side children, helped found a walk-in medical clinic, and formed the city’s Rainbow Coalition — a multicultural pact comprised of groups like the Latinx Young Lords, the white Young Patriots, the socialist Poor People’s Coalition, the American Indian Movement, and the Chinese-American collective the Red Guard. His ability to bring together disparate people under the banner of resistance not only raised the fears of national figures like J. Edgar Hoover, it set the Federal Bureau of Investigation on a covert and paranoid path that ultimately ended in the assassination of the young revolutionary.

The Fred Hampton movie the Lucas brothers began writing resisted the traditional trappings of a Hollywood biopic, in part to entice the kinds of studio executives unfamiliar with their subject’s name. Their script recounted the FBI’s rabid pursuit of Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) through the eyes of the man who would betray him — informant William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield). The narrative decision allowed the brothers to explore Hampton’s charisma, his rising influence, his political prowess, through the experiences of someone else. Specifically a car thief facing jail time, who agrees to infiltrate Hampton’s inner circle and further Hoover’s plot to imprison and, later, eliminate entirely, a purported enemy of the state. In the process of untangling Hampton’s story, and the American government’s overall targeting of Black revolutionaries, Keith and Kenny ended up writing a crime thriller.

Judas and the Black Messiah — directed by Shaka King, co-written by Will Berson, and produced by Ryan Coogler — is the long-overdue result of the Lucas brothers’ decade-long project, most recently delayed by a pandemic that prompted the studio that finally bought into the duo’s vision to release an Oscar-gunning film on a streaming platform. (It will simultaneously release on HBO Max and in theaters.) Now, there’s nothing left to stop Hampton’s saga from reaching a wider audience, even if it’s not altogether his story. Ahead of the premiere, the Lucas brothers explained how their version of a biopic came to be.

Lakeith Stanfield as William O’Neal in Judas and the Black Messiah. Photo: Glen Wilson/Warner Bros.

The Idea

Years after learning about the 1969 assassination of Fred Hampton, the Lucas brothers decided that they wanted to turn his story into a film. But it wasn’t until they discovered the role that career criminal turned FBI informant William O’Neal played in the tragic Hampton saga that they realized the movie they wanted to make was a crime thriller.

Keith: We found out about Fred Hampton in college in 2004. We were taking an African-American studies course. There was a chapter on the Black Panthers, and in that chapter, there was a brief paragraph on Fred Hampton and how the FBI and the Chicago Police Department conspired to execute him. When we heard that story for the first time, we were taken aback. I couldn’t believe something like this happened in this country and it wasn’t more widely known.

Back then we appreciated film, but we had aspirations to become lawyers. We didn’t know right then and there we would be making a movie about Fred Hampton. It was just a story that stuck in our heads. Once we entered Hollywood around 2010, that’s when we had ambitions to get a movie made. Around 2013, we circled back to Hampton’s story. We read this book called The Assassination of Fred Hampton by Jeffrey Haas. It was so detailed. As we dug a little deeper, we were overwhelmed at the scope of it all: The federal government assassinated a citizen. How do you get from him being a kid who was a community organizer or an activist to an assassination?

The story itself is so sprawling and there were so many different angles. But once we read about FBI informant William O’Neal, we were like, Holy shit. This is a conspiracy crime thriller.

Kenny: Around 2013, we put together a treatment centered on the relationship between Hampton and O’Neal. We went out to a bunch of companies, pitched the idea and didn’t get any sort of traction. So we put it on the back burner. While we were doing that, screenwriter Will Berson was developing his own Hampton narrative, which didn’t take into account William O’Neal.

Keith: Will’s script was fantastic, I don’t disagree with it. But I think if you want to show the insidious nature of the FBI and the institutional forces that conspired to take out Hampton, then you have to have a healthy FBI perspective. You don’t want to just leave it to one scene because that would undercut the nefarious nature of the FBI. Which in my opinion is important to the Hampton narrative.

Kenny: When we met director Shaka King in 2016 — we were filming a pilot for FX — we felt like he had the chops to really execute the idea we wanted to do. So we pitched him our treatment. Jermaine Fowler, who’s in the film, a comedian friend of ours, he knew Will Berson. So he made the connection between the two camps.

Keith: Once we connected, we realized that if we could use parts of his screenplay, but reworked for our story outline, we would have a script that could be sold somewhere.

The Character Choice

In the reworked screenplay, William O’Neal arguably becomes the lead character in this retelling of Black Panther history, with Fred Hampton taking a slightly backseat role. (As a result, Daniel Kaluuya is earning nominations for Best Supporting Actor this awards season.) It was a deliberate decision on behalf of the writers of the “first big movie about Hampton,” who never wanted to make a clichéd biopic.

Kenny: If you take The Great Gatsby, Nick inches us into the story, but the person who drives everything is Gatsby. We really wanted O’Neal to represent the audience as an entry point into this crazy world. Him being a criminal, being attached to the FBI, immediately makes it more of a sprawling crime epic. And you avoid some of the pitfalls of making a clichéd biopic. We wanted to avoid those trappings with Hampton’s story because you want to make an intriguing film. You want it to be gripping. But you also can’t dilute Hampton’s message. I feel like Daniel Kaluuya’s screen time versus Lakeith Stanfield’s is almost even; I wouldn’t necessarily say Hampton takes a backseat to O’Neal. I would only say that William O’Neal is the entry point.

Keith: We realized this is probably the first big movie about Hampton. A lot of people don’t know his story. And that goes for the people who are on the side of buying films. So when you’re pitching a story about Fred Hamtpon, you have to make sure you put it into terms that can become sellable, because ultimately that’s the game we’re in. We realized a crime thriller would be more sellable than a traditional biopic. But ultimately we wanted to make sure Fred Hampton’s story was paramount throughout the entire film.

The Source Material

In Henry Hampton’s Eyes on the Prize docuseries, William O’Neal tells his own story — of how the FBI recruited him, how he joined the Black Panthers, how he began informing on Fred Hampton. Judas and the Black Messiah recreates some of the footage from Eyes on the Prize in an early scene, and showcases an actual clip from the interview near the end. The Lucas brothers used the Eyes on the Prize transcript, along with thousands of pages of documents from the FBI, to build a picture of who O’Neal was.

Keith: We found this transcript of O’Neal’s Eyes on the Prize interview. It was a pretty thorough interview, as it goes from how he got started in the Black Panther Party to how he worked with the FBI to gather intelligence on Hampton.

Kenny: And then Will got some of the FBI documents.

Keith: I think it was 7,000 pages from the FBI. There are also two articles about William in The Chicago Tribune, another one in the Sun-Times, and another talking about the moments up until his suicide. So there weren’t a ton of primary sources on O’Neal, but there was enough to get a good idea of who he was and why he did what he did.

Kenny: The confounding thing about William is he says one thing but he does another. You’re very hard-pressed to get a take on him and his relationship with [his FBI handler] Roy Mitchell. He painted them as Another 48 Hrs. They were buddy cops taking down this criminal organization. He was obviously flawed, and clearly misguided. But I do believe he was manipulated by Roy and the FBI because they’re masters at that stuff.

Keith: You gotta remember, he was 17 years old [when the FBI recruited him]. This was a kid who was easy to manipulate and he paid the ultimate price.

Kenny: So the idea was to frame this as an eyewitness testimony of the events that occurred so we can add some sort of legitimacy and authenticity to the narrative. By showing O’Neal’s actual life, we add evidentiary authenticity to the narrative. We also wanted to underscore that this guy was clearly in over his head. The juxtaposition of Hampton in his militancy and his directness becomes even more enlightening when you see how confused O’Neal was. Up until the very end, he still believed in the notion that he had a point of view. It was important to show how this guy was so delusional that it wasn’t until the end — when he was finally forced to confront the reality that he really got a great man, a revolutionary, killed. Once he finally realized what he did, the guilt was too overwhelming.

Keith: Showing the actual person drives home the point that these are real people. This is the story that happened. This is a real dude who did some shit that he ultimately came to regret. The hope is that when people see the actual person they say, “Holy shit. This was a movie, but this dude was real. Hampton was real. These were real people. And there was one person manipulated by the forces that killed the other.”

The Lucas Brothers. Photo: Brian Friedman

The Title

During the 1950s and ’60s, in a bid to destabilize domestic political groups like the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, the FBI began a Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), notably targeting the era’s Black leaders. Judas and the Black Messiah recalls this surveillance strategy by depicting the FBI as a shadowy cult of actively racist white law-enforcement officials.  

Keith: When we were doing our treatment, the film was called The Rise of the Black Messiah. We wanted to paint a narrative that was really incisive about the U.S. Counterintelligence Program. It was very important for us to have “Black Messiah” in the title. We’re not saying that Hampton is Jesus. What we’re saying is that Hoover and the racist COINTELPRO projected this messianic characterization on charismatic Black activists.

Kenny: As we went through the stages of development, there were several other titles. Jesus Was My Homeboy was a title initially released to the public. Then it went untitled because some of the folks in the Panthers didn’t feel comfortable associating Hampton with the equivalence of Jesus. We started thinking again about what would be the best title to reflect the nature of the story. We had always drawn parallels to the biblical story of how Judas betrayed Christ, and how the Roman Empire killed Christ. We didn’t feel like we were forcing it onto the narrative. History presented us with a narrative that is nearly similar to what Christ went through.

The Cartoon Villain

Of course, the looming figure behind COINTELPRO was none other than J. Edgar Hoover. In Judas and the Black Messiah, Martin Sheen — under heavy prosthetics and makeup — plays the former director of the FBI as a bigoted Scooby-Doo baddie.

Keith: When you study Fred, you study Dr. Martin Luther King, and you study Black revolutionaries from the ’20s up until the ’70s, J. Edgar Hoover plays a critical role as the opposition throughout. He is deeply, deeply afraid of Black revolutionaries, for whatever reason. He certainly was racist. But perhaps there was some other explanation as to why he was so fearful. In our early descriptions of him, though outlines and through some of the first drafts, we described him as a monster. We didn’t go into physical descriptions, but we had this idea of him as a boogeyman. We didn’t want to make him a cartoon villain, but it’s kind of hard not to make him one either.

Kenny: He’s a very difficult character to portray because on the one hand, with screenwriting 101, you want to make all of your characters complex and nuanced. But on the other hand, everything that you read about Hoover, especially in relation to his treatment of Black activists, is so villainy. Where do you find the nuance? How do you not turn him into a cartoon villain from Dick Tracy? I think that’s why it was important for us to have more Roy Mitchell. Because at the very least, he’s a more balanced evil person. And we didn’t want to make a Hoover movie. This is an examination of the FBI in totality, from Roy all the way up to Hoover.

Keith: Hoover was the showrunner, but there were also company men who just followed the rules. It didn’t matter if he was a crazed racist, they were going to follow orders.

Kenny: We’re hoping people see the parallel to Nazi Germany and the banality of evil. You can feel like you’re doing the right thing when you’re repressing and oppressing and executing Black people, but you’ll have people who are saying they’re just doing their jobs. It was important to capture that. And it’s almost perfect timing because just recently the Chicago Sun-Times released documents that show Hoover was explicitly involved in the raid to kill Fred Hampton. We didn’t even know that. We made some artistic choices to include Hoover in our narrative, and have him conscious and aware of what was happening, but that wasn’t active. We made an assumption and it turned out to be correct.

The Death Scene

At 4 a.m. on December 4, 1969, the Chicago Police Department, in conjunction with the FBI, raided Hampton’s West Side apartment, fatally shooting Black Panther security officer Mark Clark and then murdering Hampton, who’d been drugged before slipping into bed with his nine-month-pregnant fiancée, Deborah Johnson. All told, authorities allegedly fired 99 shots to the Black Panthers’ one. The Lucas brothers — taking inspiration from a Hampton family friend, Mamie Till, who asked for an open-casket wake for her son, Emmett — consciously chose to recount the events of Hampton’s death in triggering yet restrained detail to testify to the maliciousness of the FBI.  

Keith: It was a tough scene, man. It’s tough when you read it, when you think about it. You hear about 99 gunshots, and the fact that he was executed right in front of his pregnant girlfriend. It’s so integral to the story of Hampton because it’s so brutal. You see this great human being, and all that he’s done to bring the community together and fight oppression, only to be brought down like an ant. We felt like it was important to put it in there, but not in a gratuitous way. We didn’t show him getting shot. But we knew we needed to at least allude to the brutality. Fred Hampton Jr. was on set. So was Mother Akua [formerly known as Hampton’s fiancée, Deborah Johnson]. It was deeply, deeply triggering.

Kenny: Yeah. I had a rough time sleeping after watching the scene play out. But I think for a mass audience, especially a white audience, I think they need to see that brutality. I think they need to understand that the fight we’re engaging in against police brutality and white supremacy is a fight that is a long and arduous struggle. You can draw a direct line from Breonna Taylor all the way back to Fred Hampton. As in George Floyd and Emmett Till. None of this is in a vacuum. The more we remind whites of their brutality against us, the less of an argument they have against Blacks and Black Lives Matter. If they can understand that the historical record is not on their side, then that gives us a leg up.

Keith: We worked very closely with Chairman Fred Hampton Jr. and Mother Akua to make sure we did everything right by them. They paid close attention to the script. If they wanted it out, we would take it out.

Kenny: Like the scene with the close-up on Deborah, when we see her not crying — that was a direct note from Mother Akua. She was like, “I didn’t cry. And I don’t want that to be portrayed onscreen. I stood there and I stood my ground.”

Another thing we had in the initial scene was a traditional Hollywood, FBI-guys-flying-in-through-the-windows type sequence. We had it set up so that it was even more grand and epic than how we presented it. And again, the restraint was presented by Mother Akua. She said people didn’t fly in through the windows. They came in through the door and they shot it up. So we listened explicitly to her.

The Hope

Judas and the Black Messiah speeds past Hampton’s early years in Chicago, choosing to focus instead on the period of time O’Neal observed him. The Lucas Brothers hope their decision to limit their story opens doors for more films and series about the man behind their Black messiah.

Keith: This industry is so wild. You need a miniseries to examine the intricacies of Fred Hampton. From his journey as a kid from Maywood who stood up for civil rights at a young age to becoming a revolutionary. When we narrowed the focus of the movie, we were wondering, how can we best present this in a way that it becomes accessible to studios, but also in a way that serves Hampton’s story where you’re getting the meat and potatoes of him. From our film, you get that he was a powerful orator. You get that he was a powerful organizer. You get that he was a committed Marxist. You get that the fear from the FBI came from his ability to unite people. We don’t want this film to be the only Fred Hampton film. Because there’s so much more from his life that we can learn about.

Kenny: How many Dr. King films have we had? There have been so many. We hope this is the beginning of a deep understanding of Fred. I want to see TV shows. I want to see more books. I want to see an explosion of Fred Hampton material that really dissects his personality. I feel like he should be up there in the pantheon of Civil Rights leaders, with Malcolm X and King.

Keith: When you’re pitching a story to executives, usually white, you know that they don’t know who Fred Hampton is. They don’t have a clue about the importance of these people to us. You almost have to play this game where you’re not just pitching them a biopic; you almost have to put it into words they can visualize. And even when we had our genre picked, The Departed meets The Conformist, we still struggled.

Kenny: And we had [producer] Ryan Coogler. We had Shaka King. It was frustrating when we had such a meaty package and we were still getting like, “Oh, we don’t know.”

Keith: Hollywood is strange. Props to Warner Bros. for giving us the money and the distribution, for sure, but it was a challenge, man. Because when you say “Fred Hampton,” and when you say “Black Panthers,” their first thought, and I kid you not, the first thought is terrorism, violence, and anti-white. It’s never, These guys are way more complex than that. They have this very myopic view of the Panthers. So you’re trying to sell them on Hampton, but they’re seeing and feeling an entirely different thing. It’s a delicate balance when you’re pitching something about a Marxist revolutionary.

Finding the Judas in Judas and the Black Messiah