Movies

“Twenty Years Ago, It Would Have Been Impossible”

Comedian twin brothers Kenny and Keith Lucas on their dramatic triumph Judas and the Black Messiah—and why it could only have been made right now.

The man stand in a crowd wearing matching black berets and olive-green military-style jackets that match the others in the crowd.
Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield in Judas and the Black Messiah. Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Judas and the Black Messiah is a period piece, recounting the story of Black Panthers leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) through the eyes of an FBI informant (Lakeith Stanfield) in the late 1960s. But the movie also feels totally of the moment—a complicated, sexy, righteous, and altogether thrilling invocation of the past that feels like it only could have come now. Indeed, Kenny and Keith Lucas, the 35-year-old twin comedian brothers who wrote the story for the film, told me there was no way a movie like this would have been made in Hollywood until recently. The brothers are natives of Newark, New Jersey, like me, and I had been a fan of their stand-up comedy and their bingeworthy animated TV series Lucas Bros. Moving Co., but I didn’t expect to see their names in the credits for the dramatic biopic when I first watched it. I called the brothers this week to talk about why Judas could only have been made now, the awards season controversy that’s popped up ahead of the Golden Globes, and our shared hometown. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Aymann Ismail: Do you think Judas and the Black Messiah would have been made 20 years ago?

Kenny Lucas: Absolutely not. No, not possible. It was a very difficult film to get made now. Twenty years ago, it would have been impossible.

Keith Lucas: We were fortunate enough to have someone like Ryan Coogler and Charles D. King, and we had some really good partners on this film, who didn’t necessarily exist back then. We didn’t have a director who was able to direct a film that grossed a billion dollars [like Coogler did with Black Panther]. That type of stuff, really, really helps in trying to get stories like Judas made. So I think that this time was probably the only time it could have got made, and we were just fortunate enough to ride the wave of films like Moonlight, Get Out, Black Panther, and Selma. It’s been a bit of a renaissance, and ultimately it opened up the doors for Judas to be made.

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What would Hollywood have done to this movie in the 1980s?

Keith: It would have been Eddie Murphy as Bill O’Neal, but they would have turned it into a 48 Hrs.

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Kenny: Yeah, or it would have been Nick Nolte. Or maybe Bill Murray.

Keith: Or Dan Aykroyd.

What about the ’90s?

Keith Lucas: Oh man, Spike probably would have directed it. I don’t think Bill O’Neal would be in the movie. I think it would be just a pure, Fred Hampton biopic in the ’90s. I don’t think you can make a movie about this in the ’90s. It couldn’t happen.

The Golden Globes are Sunday. Artistically, they are bullshit. But they do affect how movies get out there, and what gets made. And this year there has been a lot of talk about how the biggest Black-led titles were shut out of the top awards: your movie, Da 5 Bloods, One Night in Miami, I May Destroy You on the TV side. The Los Angeles Times is now reporting there is not a single Black member in the voting body. What do you make of that?

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Keith: It’s part of a larger story that we’ve encountered being in Hollywood. It’s just a part of the game. Ultimately, we were able to get recognized by other award bodies, so that doesn’t speak to the quality of the film. We still were able to get a WGA nomination. We were still able to get a few Golden Globe nominations. But that’s out of our hands. I think that the quality of the film speaks for itself, and you can see it in how people are responding to it, how the critics are responding to it now. And how people on Twitter are responding to it. It’s been overwhelming love. That matters more.

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Kenny: It’s hard for me to fret over the consequences of how people decide whether or not we get awards, because we’re working on a subject that was completely selfless and sacrificial, and gave his life to the people. So, it was very difficult for me to have any sort emotions when it comes to whether or not I get nominated for an award. I think Keith said it best—the film speaks for itself. So I don’t think I need that kind of validation.

Keith: Right. And with that said, we do need some institutional changes. I think we need to see more people of color on these voting bodies, so that we can get a fairer assessment of which films are worthy of awards. But I think the battle was won by getting a movie like this made.

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The Lucas brothers.
The Lucas brothers. Loshak PR
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I was thinking about how long it took you guys to produce this film, more than a decade. And I’m thinking about how much time you had to pore over source material from Fred Hampton’s life and the conspiracy against him. Was there anything that you discovered that really shocked you, that you were especially surprised by?

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Kenny: The whole case. The entire ordeal is quite shocking. I would say the thing that shocked me the most was to know that the federal government extended resources, taxpayers’ dollars, essentially, to execute a person. I just can’t wrap my mind around it. We paid them to take out a citizen who has constitutional rights.

Keith: For me, it was just how extensive the COINTELPRO program was. I didn’t realize it had that many informants throughout the country. You hear about the big ones. You assume that King had informants. Now we know that Malcolm X had an informant, but I didn’t realize it was over 7,000 informants throughout the country. That was kind of shocking.

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Was there a reason you told the story through Bill O’Neal’s perspective? At what point was that decision made?

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Keith: It was sort of like that from the inception of the idea. Although we recognize how important Fred’s story is, and that we all ultimately wanted people to, once they watched the movie, to get inspired by Fred and to go out and do their own research on Fred. But for a film, we’re also ultimately thinking what will be the most compelling way to tell the story. Now, a two-hour film is not enough time to cover a person’s life story, and so you’re just going to be getting Wikipedia snapshots of a person’s life story in two hours. We just didn’t want to go that route with the biopic. Because we thought that because Fred was revolutionary, we wanted to tell a story that was a bit more inventive. And so going from the perspective of the snitch made a little bit more sense to us.

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Kenny: I second everything you said.

It must have been a dream to get Daniel Kaluuya as Hampton; he’s amazing. But he’s also a decade older than Hampton was when he was killed. He doesn’t really look 20 or 21. I remember watching the movie first, and afterward I was shocked to learn how young Fred was in real life. Did that worry you at all? 

Kenny: I think one can make an artistic argument regarding why it’s best for the actor to be closer to the age of the actual person. I don’t think the argument’s without merit. What I say is Daniel Kaluuya’s performance was so riveting, and so just captivating, and spell-bounding, and otherworldly that you can’t ignore that either. You have to weigh both those positions. And so I’m inclined to basically say, “Look, Daniel Kaluuya is an incredible actor, and he played the shit out of the role, and I’m quite happy I was able to experience it.” I feel like when you experience his acting, and you experience his embodiment of creating new experiences, your interpretation of Fred, you don’t leave thinking that that was bad. You leave thinking that it was, perhaps, one of the greatest performances that you’ve ever seen on screen. So I think that that far outweighs any sort of tonal issues one may have with the age of the actor who plays the character.

Keith: And also, if you look at old photos of Fred, I’m just like, “Fred seems a lot older than what he really was.” And Kaluuya is such a good actor that he’s able to capture the youthful innocence of Fred at any moment. There were times when he would play shy, you would think that he’s much younger than a 31-year-old. So I just feel Kaluuya is such a great actor that I don’t think we should be worried about those things. I think we should appreciate a once-in-a-generation performance.

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I was watching an old interview, and you were talking about how comedy was a coping mechanism, how you used it as therapy while you work. You didn’t have that for this story. How was the process different? 

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Kenny: I think it’s just different when you’re dealing with someone else’s legacy, and their family’s reaction to that material, and you’re trying to assess what impact it’s going to have on people who are directly related to this person. So I feel like that hovers over the entirety of the process. Whereas, when I’m dealing with comedy, and I’m dealing with myself, I know that my words, or my actions, or my scripts, I know I’m not going to have too much of an impact on people related to me or my legacy. I feel like the drama of it all was just knowing that you could potentially hurt this man’s legacy. I think that was the thing that just terrified me more than anything else.

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I watched your Netflix stand-up special again this morning. And you made this joke about how you joined the Black Panther Party, but they don’t march anymore, they just have movie screenings now, so you brought Scream 2 to movie night. Was that based on a true story?

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Kenny: Maybe it was based on an incident in college where we were some part of—it wasn’t a Black militant group, but it was like a Black group association, and they did movie nights. I’m guessing we just exaggerated that.

Keith: Yeah, it wasn’t a true. Although it’s crazy, we wrote that joke before Judas and the Black Messiah. That was a joke we were developing prior to developing Judas and the Black Messiah.

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I thought you were trying to leave us clues.

Keith: No, man, that joke was made beforehand. That’s crazy.

Kenny: We might just have to bring it back.

Keith: I think we would have to update the joke, because now we actually made a movie with Black Panthers, so it’s way more surreal.

Kenny: It’s even better now.

Keith: Absolutely.

Judd Apatow is producing your next project, a comedy set in Newark, and you’ll play semi-autographical versions of yourselves. I’m from Newark too. What movies did you watch growing up here, and how did the city affect your appetite for telling certain kinds of stories?

Kenny: I would say Newark was instrumental in shaping how we consume film, and also how we were going to make film. We just used to consume a little bit of everything. Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Roger Rabbit. We saw The Bruce Lee Story with our father. And then we saw Malcolm X in Newark. I think in ’92. Do the Right Thing, of course.

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The city has been changing a lot recently. Shaq built a whole ass movie theater on Springfield Avenue, and if you go into the main auditorium, there’s a big neon sign of him dunking on you. Queen Latifah is building a luxury building. My old high school, Science High, was bought by Shaq and turned into luxury condos—

Kenny Lucas: We went to Science for like a semester.

Keith Lucas: It was weird. I liked Science High a lot actually.

I liked it too, except all the lockers were in the basement. So every time it rained, all of our stuff got soggy. What do you make of the city changing in this way? You going to come back and build your own luxury condos after you make it some more in Hollywood?

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Keith: I like that there is investment in the city. Even when we were living there, there was heavy investment in the city, but now, there’s been a lot of redevelopment and development, and it’s exciting for the city. I think that anytime the city signals to businesses that it’s worthy of investment, I think that’s a good thing. That’s a good sign that shows that there is strength in the city. And I like to believe that because of the leadership and because of the community, it’s only going to be progress in the city. Obviously, we have similar issues to other big cities, but I do believe that Newark is trending upward. I like that a lot of people like Shaq and Queen Latifah are coming back to reinvest in the city. And, oh yeah, that would be the dream if I can make as much money as Shaq and Queen Latifah and be able to come back to Newark and redevelop. That’s certainly the dream, without a doubt.

Congratulations on the film. And shouts from Newark. We’re proud of you.

Keith: Big ups to Newark. Shoutout to Newark, man, all day.

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