It has been said that comedians are among the sharpest minds when it comes to bringing cultural commentary to the masses in a relatable fashion. The Lucas Bros are part of a long lineage of funnymen who use humor and sharp wit to speak on social ills, and they graciously shared details of their work on the upcoming Judas & The Black Messiah film and much more.
Hip-Hop Wired had the good fortune of speaking at length with brothers Kenny and Keith Lucas regarding their story that framed the backdrop of Judas & The Black Messiah, starring Daniel Kaluuya in the main role as Fred Hampton, and directed by Shaka King. Given the serious themes present in the film, we asked the brothers to lay out their early beginnings and how their profession as comedians brought them to screenwriting.
“Well we are stand-up comedians and writers, and we’ve done a little bit of acting as well,” Kenny Lucas began. “We went away to college [at The College of New Jersey] to study philosophy. We entered law school and realized neither one of us wanted to be lawyers so we dropped out and embarked on a career in comedy.”
Kenny adds, “We always had an interest in film dating back to when we were very young, so the idea was to get into comedy, learn how to construct our point of view, and understand how to tell stories so we could ultimately transition into filmmaking.”
We then asked Keith Lucas to share what films he and his brother watched as youngsters and which of them inspired their outlook on life as adults.
“We consumed so much film when we were young,” Keith explained. “The first movie that we saw in the theater was Total Recall with our father and that was kind of our introduction into cinema. It’s a crazy film but once we saw that one on the big screen, we just fell in love with cinema.”
Keith goes on to say, “We also loved the film Memento, 12 Angry Men, The Godfather, Friday, which we watched religiously.”
So how did two brothers who had their first taste of movies watching Arnold Schwarzenegger pull a tracker out of his nose bring them to put together the semi-autobiographical featured in Judas & The Black Messiah?
Keith shared that the pair watched the 1970 political drama The Conformist as part of their philosophy studies during their sophomore year in college, adding that the film inspired how they approached the story for Judas. But before movies came calling, stand-up comedy broke open a number of doors for the pair.
In 2017, The Lucas Bros released their Netflix special Lucas Bros On Drugs that displayed their penchant for biting social commentary, flipping tragedy into triumph, and even jabbing at themselves regarding almost becoming lawyers. Naturally, we asked who were some of the comedians that inspired them along the way.
“Dave Chappelle is a big influence on us,” Kenny said. “Chris Rock, Wanda Sykes, and some of our contemporaries like [John] Mulaney, Hannibal Buress, Bernie Mac was huge to us, Martin Lawrence, Richard Pryor, it’s a plethora of comedians that shaped and influenced us.”
Comedic works are still in the pipeline for the brothers who are hard at work on a Revenge Of The Nerds reboot with Seth McFarlane, which cleverly flips the original story for the modern era.
They both mentioned that their angle of the reboot is to actually make the nerds the bullies, taking inspiration from tech giants and framing them the ones in control and effectively bullying the marketplace while examining the “toxic nature of nerd culture.”
Kenny and Keith are also developing a film, a television series, and an animated series all inspired by their Newark and Irvington upbringing, along with a book inspired by their hometowns.
Like many young Black men who grew in tough environments, the block is where you learned how to survive with your wits, and both brothers admit that they were probably more influenced by their neighborhood peers than any of the comedy greats.
This point shifted the conversation towards a piece the brothers wrote for Vulture titled “Our Brother Kaizen” last summer, and it is one of the most moving essays ever written about how systemic racism and one’s surroundings can shatter the trajectory and dreams of even the most hopeful of individuals.
“Kaizen was like our big brother, he’s truly the first person to have an influence on us and our comedy and our musical tastes,” Keith said, mentioning that Kaizen introduced them to Wu-Tang Clan and other Hip-Hop stars. “When you read about what he did at the end of his life, we remember him differently. Because he meant so much to us, we took an opportunity to tell a fuller story about who he was.”
Kaizen Crossen was shot and killed in 2019 after he fatally wounded one man after opening fire in the township of Irvington, just six miles from Newark, and where the Lucas Bros also lived. The brothers, as they noted in their piece, told us that Crossen was wrestling with demons far greater than any of them knew.
“When you grow up around violence, it becomes such a normal thing,” Keith stated. “You don’t even see it as abnormal. But as you get older you realize like ‘holy sh*t, this really has f*cked up my mind,’ and violence like that shouldn’t be normalized.”
Both Kenny and Keith remarked on their good fortune of having their mother and other parental figures that believed in their talents but juxtaposed their success against the world that Crossen had to endure without the same tools. They were critical of how their friend was depicted in the press but also understood that he did commit a crime where people died and were harmed.
This point of discussion tied neatly to Judas & The Black Messiah, and the fantastic tale of Fred Hampton, Sr., who rose to national prominence as the Illinois Chairman of the Black Panther Party in Chicago. Kaluuya, 31, expertly embodies Hampton’s fire and determination, playing a man who became one of the Black Panther movement’s most potent voices who was ten years the actor’s junior during the time of his death at the hands of crooked Chicago cops.
“You’re already shocked just by the brutality of America,” Keith said. “But then when you read about Fred Hampton, you’re like ‘holy sh*t, it’s even worse than I thought it was.’ So as Kenny and I learned about Fred Hampton, it just hit us. You just feel hopeless that this happened to a man who wanted to do good, who was doing good, he was working his damnedest to make life better for all kinds of people. To know that he was brutally gunned down next to his pregnant girlfriend just makes you sad.”
“When we got into entertainment, telling Fred Hampton’s story became an important one to share,” Kenny added noting that the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and other Black victims of police brutality were all inspirations for the story.
“Even now, we didn’t feel like humor was the way to frame this powerful moment in history. We needed to write something that spoke directly to the times, but also to depict this charismatic figure and sit back and only imagine if he were alive, we wouldn’t be in this situation that we find ourselves in today,” Kenny continued.
The brothers praised King for his directing, making certain to mention that he captured the concept of their story well but also brought in elements from films they loved growing up like The Departed and the aforementioned The Conformist.
The film most certainly displayed the community-minded bravado of Hampton, but also his desire to work in tandem with all poor and oppressed people no matter the hue of their skin. Perhaps this ability to connect people from different walks of life while promoting revolutionary socialism was the reason J. Edgar Hoover and The FBI managed to somehow upend those movements with moles and other insidious methods via the COINTELPRO program.
In closing, The Lucas Bros are proving that yes, comedy is a fantastic barometer for understanding the times, but that it can also play the background when it needs to in order for the fullness of the Black experience to blossom.
Judas & The Black Messiah makes its debut on HBO Max this Friday (Feb. 12) and at select theaters nationwide.