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'Judas and the Black Messiah': How Fred Hampton's life story became an acclaimed new movie

Alex Biese, Asbury Park Press
·4 min read
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"Judas and the Black Messiah" is bringing the story of civil rights leader Fred Hampton and his work as chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party to both the big and small screens.

The film, starring Daniel Kaluuya as Hampton, is in theaters and on HBO Max now, part of Warner Bros.' simultaneous theatrical and streaming release strategy in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Bringing Hampton's story directly to viewers' homes was embraced by Kenny and Keith Lucas, the "Judas and the Black Messiah" co-producers who share credit on the film's story with director Shaka King and co-writer Will Berson.

“I think that it’s beautiful," says Kenny Lucas. "Because you have to do the business machinations of selling your movie and making money, that’s important and I don’t want to say that that’s not important. But for us, (what's important is) getting his message out there at a large scale so people can reflect and talk about what he went through and the sacrifices that he made.

"We’re able to get his story to a mass amount of people and hopefully it has an impact on them emotionally and viscerally.”

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Daniel Kaluuya (center) stars as Black Panther Party Illinois chairman Fred Hampton in "Judas and the Black Messiah."
Daniel Kaluuya (center) stars as Black Panther Party Illinois chairman Fred Hampton in "Judas and the Black Messiah."

King's film shows "Chairman Fred" as a powerful and passionate community organizer in late-1960s Chicago as the Black Panthers establish community services like free breakfasts and a medical clinic.

Lakeith Stanfield co-stars as William O'Neal, a paid FBI informant who works his way into Hampton's inner circle.

The twin Lucas Brothers made their name in the comedy world: They created the animated series "Lucas Bros. Moving Co." (which aired on Fox and FXX from 2013 to 2015), appeared in "22 Jump Street" (2014) and starred in the 2017 Netflix stand-up special "The Lucas Bros: On Drugs."

But they've also worked for more than five years to bring the story of Hampton's work and O'Neal's betrayal to the masses.

“When we found out about Bill O’Neal ... your instinct is like, ‘This guy’s diabolical, he’s evil, he’s a monster,’" says Keith Lucas. "But as you peel back the layers and you read a little bit more and you start to examine his character a bit more, you’re like, ‘Wait a second, as (bad) as it was, he was also a victim, to some extent.’ He was also a pawn in a larger chess match."

'It felt heavy': Daniel Kaluuya on portraying Fred Hampton in 'Judas and the Black Messiah'

Kenny Lucas and Keith Lucas attend the Comedy Central Emmys after-party at Boulevard3 on Sept. 20, 2015, in Hollywood.
Kenny Lucas and Keith Lucas attend the Comedy Central Emmys after-party at Boulevard3 on Sept. 20, 2015, in Hollywood.

Kaluuya, an Oscar nominee for "Get Out," has earned best supporting actor nominations from the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild. The film, produced by "Black Panther" director Ryan Coogler, was named one of the year's best by the National Board of Review and the American Film Institute.

“It’s one of those surreal experiences, where you have this idea and initially you’re like, ‘It’s just an idea,’ and you can’t possibly predict this moment. You can’t see this moment," says Kenny Lucas. "And you’re working with Fred Hampton – a topic, a person who is otherworldly and you want to make sure you’re sensitive to his legacy and you’re sensitive to the family’s relationship to his legacy.

"When we finally started to get the reviews and when we got the reaction at Sundance (Film Festival) and it was so positive, I literally started tearing up because I’m like, ‘Man, we got it done. We got his story told to an international audience and it’s actually quality cinema.’ "

Review: Daniel Kaluuya brings power, presence to 'Judas and the Black Messiah'

"Judas and the Black Messiah" is a rousing, nuanced piece of historical cinema being told in a big, bold way by a major studio during a watershed moment of political, social and cultural change.

After the Black Lives Matter protests and the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, "that sort of put it into high gear," says Keith Lucas. "And then you had Trump in the background – he’s not even in the background, (he’s) sort of in the forefront – just creating division among races. So you had all these different things happening and I feel like cinema sort of was still pushing forward.

"You had ‘Black Panther’ come out and make a billion dollars, ‘Get Out’ came out and made a bunch of money. ‘Selma’ (2014) came out and ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ (2018) and ‘Moonlight’ (2016). There were so many great movies coming out year after year after year, just sort of breaking down glass ceilings and I think that that afforded us an opportunity to tell this story.”

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This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: 'Judas and the Black Messiah' brings Fred Hampton's story to HBO Max