Twin comedians, actors, and producers Kenny and Keith Lucas drop by The Carlos Watson Show to discuss writing Judas and the Black Messiah. You can find some of the best cuts from the conversation below, and the full interview can be found on the show’s podcast feed.
On ‘Twinning’ in Style
Carlos Watson: I always wanted a twin brother. I grew up in Miami. We were playing sports. We were haggling with people. Maybe doing other stuff. And I always wanted a twin brother. How good is it?
Kenny Lucas: It’s just fun, man. You got your best friend with you, and [if I] stumble, he just picks me up.
Keith Lucas: Yeah. It’s like, I always have a hype man with me. You know what I mean? I never feel like I’m alone in this world. So if I’m stumbling or if I can’t get my thoughts together, I know he’s going to come in and just put it together. So it’s like, yeah, I have my best friend with me at all times. It’s just a beautiful thing when we get to create too and work with others and do stand-up together. We just have a very, very close and healthy relationship. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Kenny: It’s made COVID a lot easier.
Watson: Look, now, did you guys ever have a moment where you were — and I don’t just mean a moment but like six months, a year, two years — where you guys, for whatever reason, went your own way or tried to go your own way, or have you guys been a true unit?
Keith: No. We have. We separated a bit when we went to different law schools. So I went to Duke Law. He went to NYU Law. So for almost three years, we were living separately. And it was probably the toughest two years of my life.
Kenny: Without a doubt. It was the hardest, man.
On ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’
Watson: Hey, tell me about the Fred Hampton movie. I was so glad to see that you did it. I love how you’ve cast it. I know you worked with good people on it, but I love seeing LaKeith [Stanfield] and I love seeing Daniel [Kaluuya] and the others. It feels like you’ve got a beautiful cast there. How did you get involved in it? How’d you help put this together?
Kenny: Yeah, man, the cast is electric, and props to everyone who worked on the film. We actually, we came across Fred’s story while we were in college, actually. Sophomore year we’re taking this African American studies course …
Keith: Professor Dr. Fisher.
Kenny: Dr. Fisher, big up to Fisher, and we were covering Reconstruction up until the 1970s, and so we did this chapter on the Black Panthers, and then he talked about the state-sanctioned assassination of Hampton. We’d never heard of Hampton until college. I was like, “Why is this story not more widely known? Why didn’t we learn this during elementary school? Why did we just gloss over it?”
So that always struck us as odd, so once we decided to get into entertainment, our goal was like, “We got to get a Fred Hampton film made. I don’t know when we’re going to do it, how are we going to do it? But as soon as we start getting a little bit more buzz as comedians and actors and stuff like that, we’re going to try to transition and write this story, and get it done.”
We always knew we had the ability to write it, but we didn’t have the resources, we didn’t have the connections, so…
Keith: And we didn’t really know, like, the the process of getting a movie made, but like we were doing a ton of research. I mean, we read The Assassination of Fred Hampton, we read Black Against Empire, we were watching all of the speeches. We just tried to really immerse ourselves into the life story of Fred Hampton — who he was, what he stood for, his message.
Kenny: And then we came across this transcript of the “Eyes on the Prize” interview in 1980, I think PBS. And it was about William O’Neal. He was doing this interview about it, and he was pretty much walking us through his time as a Panther in the late ’60s. And we were like, “Holy shit, this is the film, right here.” It just felt cinematic.
Keith: We saw it immediately. We were like, “Wait, this is a crime thriller.” We have this informant who infiltrated the Black Panthers and took down one of the greatest people of all time. That, to us, would make a perfect film. And so we started constructing the story around William O’Neal infiltrating the Black Panthers. And you know, we watched this movie in sophomore year called The Conformist. It’s this 1970s Italian crime thriller.
Keith: Bertolucci. It’s a cinematic masterpiece, and we were like, we want to frame our story like that. We want to basically make The Conformist, but set in the world of COINTELPRO, and so that’s how we put together our pitch doc, and we wrote out a two-to-five-page outline, and we went around town to a bunch of different production companies and studios and tried to sell them on this crime thriller epic involving Fred Hampton.
And we got passed on by every studio. And it was what it was, but we realized we were going to need to strengthen our package. We’re going to need a little bit more to sell this story. So we thought we needed to work with a filmmaker to translate our ideas into something more cinematic.
Kenny: And that’s when we met Shaka [King], in 2016. We were just filming a pilot for FX, and he was directing it and we just hit it off. He just had a sort of an ease with us, like he was just very cool and calm, and he felt like the guy who could handle something of this magnitude.
During this time, Will Berson was working on his own script about Fred Hampton, which was a bit more robust, but we hooked up with Shaka, he came to our Hollywood apartment and we just started hitting it off, and we started pitching him our idea. And he was telling us how he would handle it, and he was pitching us some ideas. So we went back and forth on another more robust treatment and then we hooked up with Berson.
Keith: Yeah, because Jermaine Fowler, who’s…
Kenny: He’s in the movie.
Keith: He knew Berson, he knew Shaka, he knew us, and he kind of put us all together. And that’s when we read Berson’s script, and we were like, “Wait a second. We can use our story, rework Berson’s script, put it all together and then go out to town.” And Shaka knew [Ryan] Coogler from Sundance, so once the script was done, he called up Shaka, I mean, called up Coogler to ask him to produce the film. And Coogler got involved, then once Coogler got involved, he called up Charles King…
Kenny: Who put up half the budget.
Keith: …who put up half the money to finance the film, so it was just a lot of different parts and pieces moving together, and I’m shocked it got this far, but it’s…
Kenny: Yeah, man. It’s a movie about a revolutionary socialist, a Black revolutionary, being produced by Warner Bros. It’s everything we could have hoped for.
Darkest Before the Dawn?
Watson: Give people some advice, because you guys know that dreaming fearlessly is not an easy thing to do for any of us. And even if you start to go down that road where you do dream fearlessly, actually bringing it alive can be heartbreaking, it can be difficult, it can be interrupted. What’s the best advice you’ve either gotten or given to someone about how to dream fearlessly and bring those dreams alive?
Kenny: Great question. I mean, I think this sounds almost cliché and I hate to say it, but I think that the best advice I can give to anyone who wants to dream fearlessly is stay persistent, believe in your instincts and believe in yourself because no one’s going to believe in you. No studio. I mean, the institution is not going to believe in you until you prove yourself, but in order to prove yourself, you have to believe in yourself. You can have some doubts, that’s reasonable, but don’t let them overwhelm you. Don’t…
Keith: Be prepared to … I don’t want to say fail, but be prepared, it’s not going to always go the way you want it to go. There are going to be obstacles. There’s going to be conflict. There are going to be moments where you feel you’re at your lowest. But if you just, as Kenny said, stay persistent and just don’t give up on yourself.
Anything is possible. We’re from Newark, New Jersey. Our father went to prison when we were 6. We grew up poor. We had nothing. I mean, we had a family and we had some stuff, but we grew up at the lower end in terms of class. And we made it to where we made it because we believed in ourselves and we worked our asses off. So, you got to work hard, but you’ve got to have faith in yourself as well. And if you have faith in the good Lord, that helps too. Yeah. And our faith in God carried us further than anything.