“Judas and the Black Messiah” follows the story of William “Bill” O’Neal, a petty criminal turned FBI informant who infiltrated the Black Panther Party in Chicago, led by Chairman Fred Hampton. Produced by Ryan Coogler, Shaka King, and Charles D. King, the film has garnered industry-wide praise and six Oscar nominations.
Judas is a serious film that tackles 1960s liberation movements and state repression of them, yet, there’s a bit of irony when you find out who came up with the film- popular twin comedians, Keith and Kenny Lucas. But The Lucas Brothers have subverted and surpassed expectations before. They grew up in the projects of Newark, New Jersey and then attended law school at Duke and Yale, and then dropped out of school to become comedians.
The brothers first learned about Fred Hampton in college and have wanted to make a film about him since entering Hollywood. The duo teamed up with Will Berson, a co-screenwriter on the film, and once it premiered in February 2021, “Judas and the Black Messiah” was the culmination of almost a decade of work. In an interview with Colorlines, The Lucas Brothers discuss the film, the effect they want their art to have in the world, systemic oppression, advocacy around racial justice, PTSD awareness and much more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” received six Oscar nominations. How does it feel to see the accolades the film has been getting?
Kenny: It feels amazing. Considering the process that went into getting it done, the history that was made, the fact that the film was well-received, I’m very excited about it.
Keith: I’m appreciative that people are recognizing it. It was good that we were able to honor Fred’s legacy at the highest level, and that matters to me more than anything.
Considering current events in our society and the political climate we are in, how has Judas resonated with people outside the industry?
Kenny: Because the film is so timely and also timeless, I think it speaks directly to what is happening right now. We are currently going through the trial of Derek Chauvin– the murderer of George Floyd. It’s just the continuation of the excessive police brutality we’ve seen throughout the course of the African American experience. What I hope is that people will understand that this isn’t new. I hope that we take a more cautious approach to our history, so that we learn from the mistakes we may have made, and never make those mistakes again. We have to be vigilant in our defense against police brutality and never let up.
Watch a scene from Judas and the Black Messiah.
Did you talk to activists as a part of your research to create the film?
Keith: Yeah there was an extensive amount of research done. When we were first initially developing the film, we read a bunch of books like, ”The Assassination of Fed Hampton”, “Black Against Empire”, and a few others. We read the transcript for the “Eyes on the Prize” interview with William O’Neal. Will and Shaka did their own research as well. Once the script was done, we had a meeting with Mama Akua and Chairman Fred Hampton Jr., as well as a 12-hour meeting with some of the Panther members. So we all individually and collectively have probably read everything there is on Hampton and William O’Neal and that chapter of the Illinois Black Panthers.
Do either of you consider yourselves activists or your work activism?
Kenny: It would be disrespectful to activists–those who are on the ground, knocking on doors, fighting for policy change, like Fred Hampton or Angela Davis or Dr. King who have given so much, even their lives to impact change–to say what I’m doing is akin to what they’re doing. What I will say, is that I respect and appreciate the philosophies and outreach of activists and would say that we share similar aims. We want to protect our communities, and we want to ensure that future generations don’t have to struggle like current or past generations. But I wouldn’t want to say my actions are inspired by activism. I am a comedian and my aim is to make people laugh, to elicit emotions and make people feel something. It would be unfair to those who put their lives on the line everyday.
Keith: We are more of a complementary piece to activists. Every institution serves its own purpose. But there are people on the ground, whose names we don’t know, who are doing real work. I would rather uplift them, than to conflate what I’m doing to what they are doing. I don’t see myself as an activist per se, but I see myself as a person who is trying to use my gifts, my art, my comedy to make a more fair society.
Are there any present day movements, causes or activists that excite you and that you want to amplify?
Kenny: You still have the Black Panther Cubs led by Fred Hampton Jr. out there everyday for the rights of Chicagoans, continuing the legacy of his father. You got Rosa Clemente, another hardcore activists who has been out there in New York fighting against discrimination, police brutality and all sorts of injustices. There’s a plethora of activists.
In our education system, younger students don’t learn about the Fred Hamptons of the world, and certainly not the U.S. government infiltration of freedom movements. Why do you think this happens?
Kenny: The white power structure wants to present itself as heroic, brave, they don’t want to be the villains in their narrative. If they decided to tell history in its most accurate and truthful manner, you’d have to grapple with slavery, segregation, lynching, police brutality, mass incarceration, the centuries long campaign to disenfranchise and brutalize African Americans. The public education system is a part of that ethos–to paint whites as heroes, black people as lazy or brutes, as deserving of the treatment they have received. It’s just an ecosystem of dishonesty and distortion to justify their brutality of African Americans.
You wrote a powerful and somber piece in Vulture about your cousin who committed murder due to PTSD. You also talked about your own mental health struggles. How have coped with these difficulties, and how have you promoted PTSD awareness?
Keith: We’ve given talks at schools. We’ve worked with this organization called POPS the Club, dedicated to children with incarcerated parents. We gave a talk a couple months ago, basically about the [Vulture] piece and what it was like growing up with a father who was incarcerated and how it had a huge impact on the development of our mental health. Seeing a prison at the age of six, that can fuck with your mind as a kid–that being one of the very first institutions that you are exposed to. We talked about that during our POP presentation and they had questions about how to get through this experience. We were just like, “It’s going to be a struggle for all of your life, and it’s one of those things you have to learn to cope with.”
We are also friends with Senator Cory Booker. We’ve talked to him about PTSD on Instagram Live. We are hoping to go back to Newark this summer and have a talk with the mayor, and he’s been very active on trying to fight the issue of mental health. So we’ve tried to approach it on many different fronts–we’ve talked about it in comedy, in writing, and talked to kids about it. We do a little bit of everything to dispel some of the negative perceptions around PTSD and mental health, especially in the Black community.
Senator Booker said you guys use humor to “shake folk woke.” In your own words, what do you want your humor to do? What effect do you want it to have in the world?
Kenny: I want people to laugh, obviously. I want people to think and encourage them to really reflect on some of the systemic issues that we faced growing up. I mean look, we stand on stage and we tell our story. We obviously exaggerate for the purposes of humor, but I think that at its core, we are telling a story about being poor black kids from Newark, whose father got arrested, whose mother was on welfare and we’ve been victims of institutions since birth. So we want to convey that narrative in a humorous way so people learn more about it and we can build a coalition to fight against these forces. We encourage changes through our comedy, and that’s definitely an aspiration, if not a goal.
Do you see your comedy and the film, “Judas and the Black Messiah”, as serving different purposes? Or do you see them as sharing the same function?
Keith: Definitely more of the latter. Drama and comedy come from the same source. In terms of what we want to achieve, the aims are somewhat similar. Ultimately, you want folks to leave asking questions, do more research about the issues. In both mediums, you have to entertain. But I also want people to think a bit more critically. So we like to use drama and comedy to achieve those ends.
Before your successes in entertainment, you both attended law school. Are there any current legal topics holding your attention?
Kenny: I think often about the drug laws and mass incarceration; the process the criminal justice system uses to exploit poor African Americans and to justify their incarceration. What fascinates me is that there are so many steps in the process where we should say, “Maybe we should do this [instead],” but it becomes so systemic and embedded in the social milieu that people don’t even question it. You can watch a video of a cop putting his knee on the neck of an African American, killing him, and then in the trial we are talking about the drugs that the victim used. That’s how terrible it is. We justify killing African Americans if they are intoxicated or use drugs, and that’s an issue I’m preeminently concerned with because I do smoke weed. God forbid I’m stoned one day and a cop is like, “He’s acting out of hand and we are justified in killing him.”
What does racial and social justice mean to you?
Keith: Since I come from a philosophy background, I’m always fascinated by concepts of justice and what it means to be an individual in a society, what behavior and actions are considered just. In this country, we see everyday people on the ground fighting for the issues in their community, trying to reach a more equitable society. I mean we are from Newark, New Jersey, which is rooted in activism. I look at someone like Amiri Baraka–an activist, poet and artist–as an example of someone who wasn’t chasing money or fame, he was trying to improve our communities by any means necessary. You can do that in entertainment, but in many arenas as well—as a teacher, nurse, principal, CEO. There are many different ways to fight inequities. It takes a concerted effort of different types of people to fight inequities.
Kenny: A society that is just and equitable is a society that treats all its citizens with dignity and respect. All of its citizens receive due process, there are no omissions or glaring examples of discrimination. America has spent a very long time dehumanizing African Americans in a way that encourages entrenched poverty, drug addiction and violence. A more just society is one where we can ameliorate those conditions and treat African Americans as citizens. It’s our duty as artists, as journalists, as activists, to continue to remind the white power structure that we are here, we are aware of our history, we are proud of our culture and we are going to do whatever we can to ensure a just society. That’s what we have to do as a people. We have no other choice.
Joshua Adams is a Staff Writer for Colorlines. He’s a writer, journalist and educator from the south side of Chicago. You can follow him @JournoJoshua