EXCLUSIVE | Lucas Brothers on how the real Deborah Johnson told them if Black Panthers ‘smoked cigarettes or not’
In an exclusive interview with MEAWW, the Lucas Brothers, Kenny and Keith, sketch out how the real Deborah Johnson helped them make the story 'richer'
Inspired by true events, ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ highlights the tragic story of charismatic Illinois Black Panther Party leader, Chairman Fred Hampton. A revolutionary Black activist, he founded the Rainbow Coalition that not only included the Black Panthers but Young Patriots and the Young Lords too.
The movie — directed by Shaka King, marking his studio feature film directorial debut — chronicles Hampton’s journey as his political prowess grows just as he’s falling in love with fellow revolutionary Deborah Johnson. Meanwhile, a battle wages for William O’Neal’s soul.
In an exclusive interview with MEAWW, Lucas Brothers, Kenny and Keith, sketch out how the real Deborah Johnson — who later changed her name to Akua Njeri — helped them make the story “richer”, gave more context and added “tenderness and heart” to it all.
Here are the excerpts:
The film also features Fred Hampton’s fianceé, Deborah Johnson. Will it tell the story from her eyes too as not many people know about her and the fact that she was pregnant when Hampton was assassinated?
Keith and Kenny Lucas: Yeah, Deborah — Mother Akua Njeri — (she changed her name) is portrayed by Dominique Fishback who not only does a splendid job of capturing the struggle and being part of the revolutionary movement but also becoming a mother. That's a huge aspect in the film and it's the central tension between Fred and Deborah — the struggle with his issues during the movement and parenthood. Her perspective made the story so much richer, gave it more context, tenderness and heart.
We actually got a chance to meet mother Akua while we were in production and she was so happy to see the story being presented with such power and poignance. She also gave us some advice and it was just a very just touching moment to be able to meet her and be able to share her story.
That's wonderful... So, did she give you any insights that you hadn't known from what was already written about the incident?
Keith and Kenny Lucas: Oh, yeah, she knew particulars and patio expressions about certain members and had deep insight into how they would react in those situations. Like, would the Black Panthers smoke cigarettes or not. So she had particular details that we would not have been able to know without her testimony. She was there on the sets along with Fred Hampton Junior and also other Panther members to essentially act as cultural experts that we would nail the authenticity of that era.
In fact, we were reading a quote from our production designer, Sam, who said she was there in the office when we recreated the space and said “it felt right” to her. Having her to be able to comment on the design production was crucial in making sure that we capture the authenticity of that time.
How was it working with the cast - Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield - and director Shaka King?
Keith and Kenny Lucas: I think the cast was stellar from right from the beginning. Daniel Kaluuya (as Fred Hampton), Lakeith Stanfield (as William O'Neal), Jesse Plemons (as Roy Mitchell), Dominique Fishback (as Deborah Johnson), Ashton Sanders (as Jimmy Palmer), Algee Smith (as Jake Winters), Jermaine Fowler (as Mark Clark), Lil Rel Howery (as Wayne) — Fantastic! I thought they did a great job in the spirit of the sixties. I thought that was sublime across the board.
What is the one scene that you look back to and that really moved you while filming?
Keith Lucas: One of the things that really touched me from an emotional standpoint and I think it's gonna affect a lot of people... was the shoot-out scene.
Deborah is pulled out of her room and the cop presses a gun on her belly. This really happened. A cop presses the gun on her belly and then they proceed to execute Fred Hampton. The scene has a really good close-up angle. And Deborah refuses to cry even though she is in so much pain. Just seeing that breaks me every time. It's very difficult for me to watch because having met Mother, who is such a wonderful person, and looking at all the tragedy she had to endure as a Black woman in America.
How was the experience collaborating with Shaka King?
Keith and Kenny Lucas: First and foremost, I think that Shaka is a very nice low-key guy who works very hard. He is a visionary and it was just a joy to be able to work with him and bounce ideas off each other. While collaborating in this capacity, I think we all instantly knew we had a very special idea and we trusted him as soon as we met him. We were like: 'I know for a fact that he's going to pull through and he's going to create a masterpiece... and he did exactly that. He was a joy to work with.
Some things you write on the paper and then when you get into production, it necessarily has to change because of the conditions. I think Shaka had such a great talent that he'd be able to take information and make adjustments but still maintain its vision. So even though we had to make some changes from paper to film. I still think it's just how we imagined it to be.
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. The subscription costs $14.99 a month.
Read the first part of the interview with Lucas Brothers where they reveal why they changed the title from ‘Jesus Was My Homeboy’ to ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ here.