EXCLUSIVE | Lucas Brothers on changing the title to ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ from ‘Jesus Was My Homeboy’
In an exclusive interview with MEAWW, the Lucas Brothers sketch out how the seeds of the story were first sown
It is early 1968... A young, charismatic activist named Fred Hampton becomes Chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party — whose aim is to fight for the freedom of the Black community and put an end to police brutality. Facing prison, William O’Neal was offered a deal by the FBI: if he will infiltrate the Black Panthers and provide intel on Hampton, he will walk free. O’Neal takes the deal.
‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ paints the real picture of the fateful betrayal in a film starring Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield. Penned down by Shaka King and Will Berson, the story is based on an idea by Kenny and Keith Lucas.
In an exclusive interview with MEAWW, the Lucas Brothers sketch out how the seeds of the story were first sown. Spilling the beans on what inspired them to create this movie, Keith and Kenny dish out tales from behind-the-scenes and reveal the real reason why the movie title was changed.
Here are the excerpts:
It is quite thrilling to see the trailer and snippets of the movie based on the revolutionary Black activist Fred Hampton. How did the idea first come to your mind?
Kenny Lucas: We came across the Fred Hampton story when we were in college. Back then, we were studying philosophy but we took an African American studies course and his name always stuck with us and we remembered the tragedy and injustice in that story. Eventually, we decided to drop out of law school to pursue a career in entertainment and set out to be writers.
We always had this idea about how can we turn this into a feature film. We've been researching but just didn't have an angle that we thought was cinematic enough. Finally, we came across William O'Neal and then we decided to turn this into a film. We fleshed out that treatment a little bit more, got another writer and they turned it into a script.
The story of Fred Hampton is not only inspiring and chilling but vast. How challenging was it to pen down the tale and what is the one aspect of his life that resonated with you the most?
Keith Lucas: We were fortunate enough to have a writer who had written a full script already so the issue was to put the right information in there. And it took a while but we didn't feel we would miss out on any information. In fact, we also had an interview with William O'Neal that helped us structure the story. So, while putting the script together, it was just a matter of telling the right story more than having to write a script from scratch.
What resonated with us the most about Hampton's life was his belief in unity and in bringing people together... I now have a deeper appreciation toward using the power of people and commitment toward the community.
The lines ‘I am... a revolutionary’ from the trailer is already giving viewers chills. But, how well does it reflect the current scenario with the Black Lives Matter protests and Capitol riots that shook America recently?
Kenny Lucas: I think that's a brilliant question... This issue of systemic racism, policy brutality and fighting for freedom among African Americans is such a consistent part of American history that you see parallels in different epochs. So I'll be going on the way back to the 1800s to the 1960s and now, there has been a consistent pattern of the state repressing African Americans when they fight for freedom.
Our experience as minorities of color is a lot different from the experience of Whites — because they are not deprived of their civil liberties and civil rights. We are. On a daily basis. And I think that is why you see so much consistency between what happened in 1968 and what is happening now.
Recently, ‘The Trial Of Chicago 7’ featured Fred Hampton along with Bobby Seale after which he was said to have been shot dead. Do the two films borrow storylines or the concept from each other in any way? And is Bobby Seale a part of the movie?
Kenny Lucas: The idea that Fred Hampton was at the trial is not actually accurate. Fred never attended the trial. He was actually going through his own legal issues which would make it virtually impossible for him to give legal advice while actually being prosecuted by the State. Moreover, he also didn't die or get assassinated during the trial. He was assassinated after that. So the storylines are fundamentally different.
We do mention Bobby Seale in our film. We actually have archival footage that shows Bobby Seale at the beginning and we also have a couple of shots of the trial itself but during that time, Hampton was dealing with his own issues. So, we are in the same era but our stories differ.
The title of the movie was earlier decided to be ‘Jesus Was My Homeboy’... what prompted you to change it to the current ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’?
Keith Lucas: That's actually a great question and it's related to your previous question about having Mother who was the cultural expert to make sure that we maintain a level of authenticity in our storytelling.
When we presented the ‘Jesus Was My Homeboy’ title, the issue was Fred never saw himself as a Messiah-nic figure or carried himself as a Jesus-like figure. So, it would be wrong to present him like that on screen. That's why we're going with the Black Messiah tag because he was feared by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) chief, J Edgar Hoover. [He was concerned, as he wrote in one directive, about “the rise of a new Black Messiah.”]
So, we're not saying that Fred Hampton is a Christ-like figure within that time when he was prosecuted and pursued by the state but instead a Black Messiah figure.
The film was earlier scheduled to be released in August 2020 but was delayed due to COVID-19. What were your thoughts back then when you realized the movie was not coming out and do you think that it's the perfect time to release it now?
Keith and Kenny Lucas: I hate to sound so cynical. As a producer, it's awful, and I was very bummed that we weren't going to get our summer release and weren't going to be in the theaters. It's very disappointing, obviously. But I put everything into context because there was a raging pandemic and people were dying. So the last thing we needed to talk about was opening cinemas.
At the same time, there was quite a bit of chaos with the George Floyd protests and when we got HBO Max on board, we thought it was actually a plus side. I think that we're getting them Black History Month release and streaming on the platform so people will be able to see it. I think optimally it could prove to be a benefit as opposed to a detriment. Only time will tell what happens but I feel like it was actually a boon.
The movie ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ will release in theaters and on HBO Max on Friday, February 12, 2021. It drops at 12 am PT or 3 am ET and is available for streaming on HBO Max for 31 days. Watch it with a subscription that costs $14.99 a month.
Read the second part of the interview with Lucas Brothers where they shed light on how the real Deborah Johnson — Fred Hampton's fiancée — spilled secrets and helped them make the story “richer” here.