It took 10 years and the fortuitous meeting of four writers to tell the story of how Fred Hampton, the inspiring leader of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers, was murdered by the FBI with the help of William O’Neal, an informant who infiltrated the Illinois chapter of the party.
Kenny and Keith Lucas, twin brothers known for their comedy work as the Lucas Brothers, had been working on a script about Hampton when they brought it up to director Shaka King, who signed on to co-write and direct. “Fred is just one of those figures that we never understood why he wasn’t more known,” says Keith Lucas of the late Black Panther leader. Then, Will Berson, who had his own Fred Hampton script, joined forces with the trio. With producers Ryan Coogler and Charles King, the team set out to tell a significant chapter of Hampton’s life, which required them to gain the trust of Hampton’s family, including his son, Fred Hampton Jr. The Warner Bros. movie, which stars Daniel Kaluuya as Hampton and LaKeith Stanfield as O’Neal, debuted at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and went on to rack up six Oscar nominations, including best picture.
Because of the pandemic, this team never got to celebrate their film with a big, crowded premiere in a movie theater, but they’ll be reunited at the Academy Awards on April 25. Ahead of their big night, the three writers sat down with Josh Singer, the Oscar-winning screenwriter behind Spotlight and The Post, to talk about crafting their script, how Coogler saved the day, and why this account from the ’60s remains so relevant today.
JOSH SINGER: Keith and Kenny, this started for you guys about 10 years ago, right?
KENNY LUCAS: Yes, we started thinking about the story in 2012 or 2013, and we were attracted to Fred’s story, obviously. We felt like it deserved to have more recognition and he should be up there in the pantheon of civil rights leaders like [Martin Luther] King and Malcolm X. But what really helped us in terms of figuring out how we might go about it in a more general way was coming across William O’Neal’s story of the infiltration and piecing through how he essentially went about helping the FBI to assassinate Hampton. William O’Neal’s story was the one that opened up a lot of doors for us.
Talk about how you hooked up with Shaka.
KENNY LUCAS: It was fortuitous. We were shooting this comedy pilot for FX — which would eventually turn into Trigger Warning on Netflix — with Killer Mike, and Shaka was the director.
KEITH LUCAS: It was a long shoot, a very long shoot.
SHAKA KING: It was actually a pilot presentation. It was actually my first professional job, period — my first professional job.
And somehow you had the bandwidth to spend enough time talking to Keith and Kenny about their passion project?
KING: I didn’t hear about it on the shoot. It was like a year later that we reconnected, and it was really because they were talking to Jermaine Fowler at one point, and I think he and I got introduced via my reps. They mentioned to Jermaine that they wanted me to work with them on this Fred Hampton script. So then I reached back out to the Lucas Brothers. And I happened to be in L.A., and I went to their apartment, and they walked me through what they were talking about. And I was just like, immediately, “This is the best idea I’ve ever heard.” And then we did nothing for another year. (Laughs.) Because we just got bogged down and busy. And then I remember New Year’s, going into 2017, I woke up that morning just like, “We have to do this.” And I called them that evening.
We were about to start writing when Jermaine reached out and said, “Hey, there’s a script by this writer named Will Berson. It’s a different Fred Hampton — it’s more of a Fred Hampton biopic.” I liked what I read, and I liked specifically just the portrayal he’d given of Chairman Fred’s parents. Even though that’s a role that got cut from our movie ultimately, just the fact that he was thinking along those lines, in terms of wanting to show a bit more of the man behind the icon, that was really attractive to me. And then he had obviously done a lot of research. And so I reached out to Will.
Will, what drew you to this story?
WILL BERSON: My parents told me about Hampton when I was a kid, and I grew up in New York in the ’80s and ’90s under [Mayor Rudy] Giuliani with Bernie Goetz [who shot four Black teenagers on a subway] and Amadou Diallo [who was shot by police] and Abner Louima [who was assaulted by police] and obviously hyper-aware of horrific police brutality against unarmed Black people. And it always felt important, it was always something that I thought about trying to do. And then in summer 2014, when Eric Garner and Michael Brown were killed three weeks apart by the police, I felt like, OK, I have to try to do this now. One of my reps at the time tried to talk me out of it. It was definitely an uphill thing all along.
Shaka, you’ve mentioned that you were so gung ho about the history that for the first six drafts, it was more of a history, and you had some hard conversations with producers in terms of moving it more toward genre. What were some of the changes that you guys started to work through?
KING: We shrunk the scope. That was the biggest change. I think those first six drafts were trying to highlight unsung heroes, like Wanda Ross, who started the breakfast program, and Che Brooks, who was the minister of education. It was a sprawling narrative. Doc Satchel played a way bigger role in the early drafts than he did [in the end product]. I think Bobby Rush did as well.
We really mapped out the conspiracy behind the assassination pretty thoroughly in those early drafts, and the thing that was always funny to us was it’s a tough conspiracy to root through because they made so many mistakes, it almost looks like they’re not trying to cover it up early on. They’re just like kind of Keystone Cops a little bit. It’s confusing on the page to a degree. People would be reading it and be like, “Wait, I don’t understand how this works.” So it was really streamlining and cutting things down.
From the very beginning, were there specifics about Fred’s story that you thought were really important to get across?
KEITH LUCAS: When we were first thinking about the story, we were really attracted to his message of solidarity. Obviously, Dr. King preached that as well, but he was coming from a Marxist, socialist perspective and, especially during that time, you never really saw that so explicitly stated in this country. Hampton, he’s just one of those figures that we never understood why he wasn’t more known. He had all the tools, he had a very tragic story, it just felt like his message of solidarity should’ve been more known.
BERSON: I think we really have to take a minute to acknowledge just how preternaturally gifted and strong and courageous and capable he was. He was killed when he was 21. By 14, he was leading the youth chapter of the Suburban NAACP in Chicago. He was so remarkable and so young, that is something that I really hope we didn’t lose sight of despite certain casting choices.
But another thing that is really important to me in terms of the message was the extent to which I think it was genuinely based on love, which sounds a little new age-y or whatever, but it was deeply sincere to him. I think that is as close as an atheist gets to God — that’s the genuinely spiritual side of him that was and is necessary to combat the kind of systemic, horrific evil that has been perpetrated against Black and brown Americans for 400 years.
You made a fair amount of use of Fred Hampton’s words. Tell me, what was that process like in terms of how you’d pick and choose? How did you decide how to use his words?
KING: It was always dependent upon the scene and what the scene called for. A lot of his words, we’d take entire chunks of text, but sometimes it’s just a line or two. His speech at Wright College contains chunks of speeches that he gave. And that scene, specifically, we really wanted to start the movie and introduce, as early as possible, the complexity of his thinking. So we thought, “What better way to do that than to show his feelings on cultural and nationalism, specifically in regard to Black nationalism?” Because that was really, for me, reading his words, it was like, “Whoa, OK, this guy is not what I would assume he is,” and let’s let the audience feel that, too, as early as possible. So whatever preconceived notions they have about the Black Panthers that they’re going with into this movie, let’s just obliterate those in the beginning.
The opening at Wright College is such a wonderful introduction of character because it’s provocative — it’s not at all what you expect. What you do beautifully is that whole scene is really from the point of view of Deborah Johnson, and then she turns the scene. You expect her just to be a fangirl, but she’s tough on him, right?
KING: Exactly. I think one of the things I’m proud of about the movie is that the politics are never separate from the story and the character — everything is feeding each other. We are not only subverting your expectations of who Fred is, we are subverting what your expectations of our female lead are. Because you are used to seeing in a biopic about a great man this woman who is next to him who just supports him. And it’s rare that you meet a woman who is this individual’s peer.
Talk about juggling POV because you start the movie in O’Neal’s point of view, and yet so much of the movie feels like its Fred’s story, but a lot of that is through Deborah’s point of view. So how did you juggle thinking about POV in your movie?
KING: Post is where the heavy lifting was really done. Because we thought about it in the script phase and we wrote it out, but I remember screening an early cut of the film that was largely from O’Neal’s POV. For example, we never showed Chairman Fred in prison in that version of the film. You knew that he went, but he was missing from the movie for a significant chunk of time. And I remember screening that cut for a number of filmmakers and coming away with a very clear sense of the fact that we had abandoned Fred’s POV too much. So we had to go back and rejigger that. And we changed so many things. I think we are fortunate that we had that screening. It was only for 12 filmmakers. Because of COVID, we didn’t have that opportunity to see this thing in a theater with a bunch of people. So we were just fortunate that the people who were most familiar with the history were the most vocal and dominated the conversation and drove home for us the fact that we had POV issues that we had to address. And I heard them and went and did that.
Talk a little bit about how valuable iteration is in writing and rewriting. I joke all the time about the hundred drafts of this movie or that movie. It sounds like that is very much the way you approach filmmaking, Shaka.
KING: This was new for me because I have never developed something with so many people before. So I can’t take really full credit for going back to the drawing board so many times. It was a really long, intense process of rewriting and rewriting and rewriting and doing drafts. We did a Save the Cat version. I had never read Save the Cat. I don’t know if Will had even read Save the Cat, but we had to go to L.A., sit in a conference room and literally they walked through Save the Cat with us. We had to come up with the Save the Cat version that probably beefed up our script by like 50 pages and filled with exposition. I remember I hated it. Ya know? But we had to do that so we could then cut out all that exposition and figure out the things that we needed narrative wise to keep in there.
You went to Chicago and talked to a bunch of folks, correct?
KING: Yeah, I went to Illinois. I took two trips to Illinois to speak with former chapter members, and we were in communication with Chairman Fred Hampton Jr., and late in the game we met Akua Nijeri [formerly Deborah Johnson] in person and a few other former chapter members that Chairman Fred introduced us to.
And I’ve heard you say that Fred Hampton Jr. signed on [as a consultant] after you started shooting?
KING: At the end of the first week he signed on.
I’ve been through similar things where you have a very important source who you want to get buy-in from. Was that a long and involved process?
KING: Yeah. It was about a yearlong process of really him getting to know us, doing background checks on us, making sure that we were who we said we were, sharing drafts with him. I think above all his relationship with Ryan [Coogler, who produced the film] — it was clear from our first meeting, which was like a 12-hour meeting, that they had a real, just human connection. I think that’s why the movie ultimately got made and why he stuck with us for that year and a half.
I assume that in order to use the speeches, you needed his blessing in some fashion?
KING: In order to use them word-for-word. It was the kind of thing where the studio wasn’t going to be comfortable, whether or not those speeches were public domain, if he didn’t sign off on some capacity. I’ve never been through anything like that because we were rolling before he signed on, and the scene at Wright College, we had those words — at one point were exactly Chairman Fred’s words and we had to revise those words. I’ve got to always big up Will for that because Will did a really good job of rewriting chunks of that dialogue. What you see in the movie is our edit of that speech because that is the day that Chairman Fred signed on. As a matter of fact, we were shooting that scene when Ryan was in his trailer, trying to get Chairman Fred to sign on the dotted line.
Wow, I’ve worked with some great producers, but that sounds like a game-changer.
KING: Thank God for Ryan. Ryan flew to Chicago without telling us, at the end of the first week. He flew to Chicago with the footage that we’d shot to show Chairman Fred Jr. And that’s a fuckin’ producer, you know what I mean? He flew there with the footage, he screens it for him, and Chairman Fred was really liking what he was seeing. And then he saw one scene that he did not like. He was like, “If you all are going to do shit like this, I have to be there to fix this.” So he didn’t sign on because he loved what we were doing, he signed on because he was not pleased with what we were doing.
What was the thing you shot that he didn’t like?
KING: So in the scene where the Panthers go and visit the Young Patriots, as Chairman Fred is approaching [William] Fesperman, Fesperman is standing on a pulpit. And when Chairman Fred gets to the front of the room and he is addressing him, Fesperman, in the version we had initially shot, was standing above him. That perspective was really problematic for Chairman Fred Hampton Jr., and I understand why. He was like, “My father never looked up to anybody.” So we re-shot it.
You started working on this a long time ago. Could you have foreseen how timely it would be?
KENNY LUCAS: As a student of African American history, you come across these stories that reflect the centuries-long struggle that African Americans have had against the white power structure, and a lot of the stories have similar thematic elements. So when you tell a story about Fred, it overlaps with Breonna Taylor or with George Floyd or any countless number of African Americans who have lost their lives to police brutality. So did I know that we’d make a film that struck a chord at this time? No, you can’t predict that. But subconsciously I always knew the film would resonate because these problems have been persistent for so long.
BERSON: I knew, because horrifically this stuff just keeps happening, and it’s not just Breonna Taylor and George Floyd but even a bunch of Ferguson protesters getting murdered in completely mysterious but similar circumstances. Yes, timeless because it never stopped, which is the horrible urgency of having to keep telling these stories.
Interview edited for length and clarity.