"Judas and the Black Messiah" filmmakers on exposing how the FBI hunted 1960s Black activiststs

Keith & Kenny Lucas appeared on "Salon Talks" to discuss telling Fred Hampton's story through a crime thriller lens

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published February 11, 2021 6:55PM (EST)

(L-R) Darrell Britt-Gibson as Bobby Rush, Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton, and LaKeith Stanfield as Bill O’Neal in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “Judas and the Black Messiah.” (Glen Wilson / Courtesy Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)
(L-R) Darrell Britt-Gibson as Bobby Rush, Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton, and LaKeith Stanfield as Bill O’Neal in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “Judas and the Black Messiah.” (Glen Wilson / Courtesy Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

As a kid­­ I always felt like Black History Month could've been just been Black History Day. Now I know that African Americans are the heart soul of American innovation — creating everything from the three-light traffic signal and home security system to refrigerated trucks and automatic elevator doors. But as kid, we didn't get any of that, and the lessons were all the same. Teachers would gloss over slavery, jump right to Dr. King, sprinkle in some Rosa Parks and close with Michael Jackson. Malcolm X was never mentioned. Neither were the Black Panthers.

But times are changing and children across the country are now getting more inclusive history lessons. Hollywood is adding to the narrative with multiple must-see films and shows defining the history of the Black experience in this county including, "Harriet," "12 Years a Slave," "black-ish" and "Self Made," which tells the tale of haircare product mogul Madam C.J. Walker. "Judas and the Black Messiah," directed by Shaka King, can now be added to that list. 

"Judas and the Black Messiah" stars Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield and Dominique Fishback and tells the story of Fred Hampton (Kaluuya), a young, brilliant revolutionary who unites Black activists, gang members and working-class whites with the purpose of fighting for justice, freedom, and liberation for all in the 1960s. Hampton was targeted by the FBI and murdered at the age of 21. I recently got a chance to talk with the multi-talented Keith and Kenny Lucas who co-wrote and co-produced the film, on an episode of "Salon Talks." 

You can watch my "Salon Talks" episode with the Lucas brothers here, or read a Q&A of our conversation below to hear more about why they have been pursuing a project on Hampton since they started in Hollywood, how they feel about Twitter criticism, and what it's like collaborating as twin brothers on everything from historical research, to stand-up comedy, to their forthcoming "Revenge of the Nerds" reboot.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How have you guys been surviving COVID, government insurrections, $600 stimulus checks and all of these crazy things that are happening in our world?

Kenny Lucas: I've been watching a lot of TV. I've been trying to read more, trying to write. Just keep my mind focused, but it's been a challenge.

Keith Lucas: It's been a weird few. Even the beginning of the year has been crazy with the storming of the Capitol. And COVID. It's a lot of s**t happening, but ultimately  I read a lot of philosophy to keep my mind settled. We're going to go through turbulent times, but I think you just have to power through it all.

 I'm not an optimistic person at all and I feel like we're going to reach the end of this soon. One thing that is making it easier is great content and great films. Congratulations on "Judas and the Black Messiah." You guys are going to educate a whole generation of people. How did you choose this particular project?

Kenny: It goes back to about 2014. We had already been familiar with Fred Hampton from college and once we got into the industry, one of our primary goals was to get a film made about him because we felt like he was such a pivotal historical figure during a transition from the civil rights movement to mass incarceration. I feel like he was a big factor in that, but he was sort of pushed to the margins. We were like, "Why hasn't there been a film that allows for him to reach his message, to reach a national international audience?" In 2014, we started coming up with ways to shape the story into a film.

Keith: We started doing a bunch of research. We read this book, "The Assassination of Fred Hampton." We read "Black against Empire." We started watching a bunch of his speeches just trying to really absorb who Fred Hampton was. You hear a lot about the death, but you don't really hear about how he lived. At a young age he was organizing. He brought people together. He was a pivotal force in the NAACP before he transitioned into the Black Panthers. This was a guy who, at a very young age, knew what he wanted to do. He's a fully formed activist. We wanted to get a fuller picture.

As we did research, we also found out about William O'Neal, the guy who infiltrated the Black Panthers and helped the FBI execute him essentially. There wasn't a lot of information on William O'Neal, but we were just like, it could be an interesting film if we came from his perspective because first and foremost, no one would expect that. And secondly, it's a thriller, but it instantly becomes a crime thriller, which is more of a genre film. So we thought, well, perhaps we could use that as a genre, but also tell a more complete picture of Fred Hampton. That's when we pieced together a story idea and went around town pitching it to various studios and production companies.

Kenny: We didn't get any offers initially, but then we hooked up with [director] Shaka [King] in 2016 and we felt like he was a filmmaker that could help elevate our story to cinematic relevance.

Keith: He's a student of '70s cinema, basically crime thrillers. We just kind of nerded out on all of those films and we were like, oh man, he has a similar interest in '70s cinema like we do and could bring his expertise along with his knowledge of '70s cinema to help us shape this into a film.

When I was a kid, we didn't learn anything about the Black Panthers or Malcolm X. I was born in the '80s and raised in the '90s and it went like this: There was this thing called slavery. That was a real long time ago. And then all of a sudden Dr. King had marched and then Michael Jackson's hair, so you good, right? That's what we got. It wasn't until Spike Lee made "X" that we learned about Malcolm X. I feel like you guys are going to accomplish the same thing with telling the story of Fred Hampton. What special things did you pick up about the era or in general about him or William O'Neal during your research that you didn't know before?

Kenny: There was actually a recent dump of FBI material that basically confirmed that Hoover and his third in command, William Sullivan, conspired with Roy Mitchell and William O'Neal to assassinate Fred Hampton. There's direct evidence. We didn't have that information before we wrote the movie. I would have loved to have that piece of information because I think we could have told an even more accurate description of what happened. That piece of information kind of sucks.

Keith: I wish we could have delved more deeply into Hampton's initial phase with the NAACP and how he transitioned into Black radicalism. I think that's an interesting story to tell too. Like what was his thinking behind switching from the more moderate NAACP to the more radical Black Panthers? I know he was young and Dr. King had just died, so perhaps that shaped his decision to be like, "This NAACP stuff isn't working. We need to be a bit more radical in our approach." I didn't know he was a part of the NAACP, I just thought he was a Panther, so learning that was interesting. And what Will knew. He was an informant for a very long time, even after the assassination of Fred Hampton, he remained an informant. I always wondered what was that like too? Who else was he informing against? 

He's a terrible person.

Kenny: But very relatable. I always say what would I have done in that situation? What would I have done if the state was like, you can either go to prison or you can infiltrate the Panthers. I'm like, would I choose prison or would I do what they want me to do?

Keith: As we delve more deeply into COINTELPRO and the "ghetto informant program," as they called it, there were way more Black people snitching on people like Fred Hampton. Fred Hampton is a generational type of person, but if you do the research, there were over 5,000 members in the ghetto informant program. There were a lot of African Americans speaking on snitching on other African Americans.

Can you guys talk a little bit about creating together as a unit?

Kenny: The process that we have has been 10 years in the making, but I think we've reached a level of just comfort with one another where we can generate ideas. We can tag team them, or we can go off and work on them separately, come back together and just flesh it out. I think we have a very good working relationship.

Keith: We truly believe in the art of collaboration. I think it's in large part because we grew up as twins. We've always had to share. We've always had to work. I've always had to work with him in everything that I've done. It was natural for me to just be okay with collaborating with others. I try to get creatives a space to do their own thing. He gives me my space to do my own thing. Our belief is we got to do what's best for the project. Any project that we're in, we want to do what's best for it. We want to make it the best version that it can be. When we collaborated with Will [Berson] and Shaka [King], our thought was like, "What's going to put this movie in the best position to be the best movie it can be?"

Kenny: You can't have an ego. You know what I mean? So much goes into making a film that if you have an ego, it could usurp the efficiency of the process. I think that ultimately you have to put the art first. You have to put the subject matter first.

Keith: With Fred Hampton, it's like you don't want to be the mother f**kers who f**ked up his movie.

Kenny: You don't want to be the mother f**ker that f**ked up a Fred Hampton movie during Black history Month.

Keith: It's extra pressure. That's why we were very, very cautious with how we went about in terms of making it. And it was important for us to find the right collaborators and Shaka and Will, they were flawless collaborators.

The whole team too. The cast is just brilliant. You guys mentioned the new FBI documents that recently came out, talking about the FBI's involvement here. There's a bigger piece to your art. There's still a whole lot of people who think the FBI are here to help everybody. I think you guys are doing a great job at deconstructing that narrative. I still think a lot of people don't understand that they're capable of doing what they did to Fred Hampton or Dr. King.

Kenny: I want to say for the record that we're not criticizing the CIA and its current iteration, so don't bug us or anything like that. But no, I think we as African Americans, and as citizens of this country, I don't think we've ever fully reckoned with what the FBI and the intelligence community did to Black activists in the 1960s. When we talk about reparations, we always go back to slavery and we're like, oh, America was terrible to African Americans during slavery. We need to fix it. Or we go to the Jim Crow segregation and say America was terrible to Black people, but this COINTELPRO s**t was even more insidious because it was the federal resources were used to essentially target Black activists, harass them, spy on them, encroach on their basic civil liberties and in some cases execute them.

Now we're talking about USSR-type s**t. We're talking about police state, modern fascism, just encroaching on Black individuals. And then you see mass incarceration. And I believe that mass incarceration is a direct relative to COINTELPRO where you're criminalizing Black activities even if they're legal. Until we speak about the birth of COINTELPRO and what happened and how it happened, we're going to ignore it and pretend like it never existed.

Keith: I think a way to combat that narrative is we need to tell more of these stories. I think this is just the tip of the iceberg with the Fred Hampton story. There's still some stuff that went down with Dr. King that I think needs to be told. You have the Oakland chapter, Black Panthers, Angela Davis, who was harassed. There were so many of our people.

Kenny: It wasn't even just African Americans who were harassed in the COINTELPRO. You had white radical liberals, musicians, actors. It was an entire government program.

Keith: We need studios to take chances on telling these stories and we got to market them as much as we can. And I think, again, this is just a start, but hopefully this will break open the ice and more people will feel compelled to write more stories about it.

I see you guys repping Newark. Any stories coming out of Newark?

Keith: Man, Newark is a fascinating place. I mean, you're from Baltimore, so you understand the Rust Belt cities post-industrial. It's one of those cities where there are so many compelling stories. When we tell our story of Newark, our father went to prison in 1993 and he was heavily involved in the drug game in Newark. But that's just one side of Newark. You still have political corruption, you have mob activity, you have lawyers who are extremely corrupt. I mean, there's just so much high-level corruption in Newark.

Kenny: It lends itself to storytelling.

Keith: We're actually working on a TV show that will hopefully tackle a lot of these issues in Newark. And we'll see what happens, but it's just so much that goes down there.

That corruption is so bad in Baltimore that I couldn't even do a drama. It can only be comedy.

Keith: For real though. It's so comedic, man. It's like the high-level of corruption is like it's so surreal that you can't even make it too dramatic. It's just like a comedy of errors.

Speaking of comedy, any more stand-ups coming? Your Netflix special "War on Drugs" was brilliant.

Kenny: We are always tinkering with the idea of doing another special. I think we just have to make sure we have the right material and we got to get on the road. It's hard to get on the road now, but we need to get back and hit hard.

Keith: Right before COVID we were going really hard. We were doing weekends. We were at The Cellar almost every night and I felt like we were in good shape to release another special, but then COVID hit and I haven't been on stage in months. I would need to really spend a year on a road just making sure the material is where it needs to be.

We get to see the finished product of "Judas and the Black Messiah," but we don't really get to see everything that goes into making these products.

Keith: Yeah, that's what's crazy. We were there from the inception of the idea up until now. So we've seen the whole thing and it's eye-opening just going through this whole process and dealing with financiers and dealing with major studios and pitching it around town and dealing with the on-set changes.

Kenny: Or dealing with Twitter activists who were already anti the movie because we have Daniel Kaluuya in there and he's a British guy. It's so funny to have to see these subsections on Twitter debate this stuff.

Twitter activism is the highest level of education, right? If you can make it to be a Twitter activist, it's kind of like Oxford.

Kenny: That's very true. I didn't see it like that, but now I do.

These guys know their stuff. They get it.

Kenny: I never want to get into conflict with them.

I've had my bouts with them. I'm not woke, I'm asleep when it comes to the stuff they talking about. The weird thing is that a lot of people with these big online personalities, they have heavy opinions and these critiques about the world, but one, they're not creating and then two, when they meet you they're trying to be your best friend.

Keith: What I hate. It's like your hands aren't in the dirt. You don't know what it's like to be on the other side, trying to create this stuff. The work we have to put in to make a Fred Hampton story, it's so much. There are so many obstacles and it's like, they don't care. They just think that we have a blank check and we can do whatever we want, but that's not how it works.

Kenny: Well, you have people who live in the real world and then you have people who tweet. The internet is not reality. It's a distortion and so sometimes you feel like what you're doing on the internet actually comports to reality and then oftentimes it doesn't.

Last thing, can you guys talk about the "Revenge of the Nerds" reboot?

Kenny: We're writing the script. It's been fun. It's definitely not "Judas and the Black Messiah." It's a totally different story, but it's been fun. We're just working with our co-writer, getting the script ready and hopefully we're looking to get into production by summer.

Keith: With COVID, it's tough to be like we're going to be filming in the summer. I want to make sure this thing is calmed down.

"Judas and the Black Messiah" opens in theaters and streams on HBO Max starting Friday, Feb. 12.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

MORE FROM D. Watkins