5 Screenwriting Takeaways from 'Judas and the Black Messiah'
February 19, 2021
Is this a biopic or a cat-and-mouse film? In a way, it’s both. And that’s because Judas and the Black Messiah has two origins. On Final Draft’s Write On Podcast, writer Will Berson discusses the origins of his screenplay and how it looked at the FBI’s pursuit of Fred Hampton. Around the same time Berson was writing his spec, Shaka King and Kenneth Lucas were creating a biopic version of Chicago Black Panthers leader, Fred Hampton.
Berson’s script got into King’s hands, and the stories became intertwined to create the film Judas and the Black Messiah, which follows FBI informant William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) as he infiltrates the Black Panther party and gets close to Illinois chapter chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya).
Intense, heart-wrenching, and eye-opening, Judas and the Black Messiah offers a compelling viewpoint on a historical figure most have never heard of.
Here are 5 screenwriting takeaways from Judas and the Black Messiah.
1. Give your lead two bad options
William O’Neal was a criminal. At the beginning of the story we see his ingenious way of boosting cars, which has worked well for him until he gets caught. After his arrest, he finds himself sitting in front of FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) who gives him two options. He says, “You’re looking at eighteen months for the stolen car. Five years for impersonating a federal officer. Or, you can go home.”
To go home, means becoming an informant.
These two options are hardly ideal, but this hangs over O’Neal’s head for the duration of the film. While he may relish the power that comes with being an informant, it’s also a job he can’t actually quit because his only other option is prison.
While this is a main catalyst for the film, the bad options choice doesn’t necessarily have to be what drives the film. In The Dark Knight, Batman had to choose between saving Harvey Dent, the indelible district attorney, and Rachel, the love of his life. Choosing one means losing the other. The audience has no choice but to be invested in the outcome.
2. What’s at stake?
The livelihood of Fred Hampton’s race is at stake. As a leader of the Black Panther Party in Chicago and a community organizer, he witnesses first-hand the need to build a movement and a coalition. He knows he can’t do this alone, and so he reaches out to build a Rainbow Coalition to help give the power to the people.
At the same time, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) says, “The Black Panthers are the single greatest threat to our national security. Our counter-intelligence program must prevent the rise of a Black Messiah." That’s the goal he has given his agents. But what’s at stake in Hoover’s mind?
While discussing the latest intelligence with agents, Hoover poses the question, “What will you do when your daughter brings home a Negro?” As despicable as that question is, that is what’s at stake for some of the characters in this film as they feel threatened by Fred Hampton's rise, and it’s their motivation to continue the fight.
But whether you agree or disagree with what’s at stake, it ultimately doesn’t matter, because it’s the stakes of the character. That’s what matters.
3. Define the lead character at the beginning
Who is William O’Neal? The first time we meet him is via interview for a PBS documentary on civil rights, recorded in 1989.
The next time we see him, we’re taken back to into the history of the story when O’Neal is a criminal who uses a fake badge to shakedown others and steal their car. He’s found a unique and successful way to be a criminal — until he’s caught.
Ultimately, O’Neal is looking for a way to make money. Mitchell capitalizes on this by both scaring O’Neal with jail time and paying him to be an informant. For information, O’Neal suddenly found himself enjoying steak dinners and other fine foods, drinks, and cigars, a lifestyle he justified for the intelligence he was providing.
Now that we have a baseline, the screenwriter can take us on a journey with him and, as their world changes, we can see the impact.
4. Is there such a thing as too much research?
There has been little written about Fred Hampton, and some theories pose that this is on purpose as a way to erase his significance. Regardless, there was still plenty of information to consume.
According to Will Berson during his Write On interview, he read everything he could — countless books, academic papers, articles, etc. He was also able to collaborate with Kenneth Lucas and Shaka King, who were writing their own version of this story.
Researching can be overwhelming and as writers, it’s fun to think that you can spend six months researching and calling it “part of the writing process,” but at some point you have to start building the story. That’s why it’s crucial to figure out the story and use the research to keep it truthful.
Says Berson, "Essential truths are more important to me than historical facts.”
5. The hero’s journey isn’t always a hero
The journey that O’Neal takes is similar to Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey.” It’s hard to call him a hero though, the same way we would look at heroes in a cinematic world like Luke Skywalker or a Marvel superhero. The Hero’s Journey can be used as a guide when filling out a character’s arc throughout a film and, in Judas and the Black Messiah, we see parallels such as his call to adventure (becoming an informant), meeting with his mentor (the FBI agent), tests, allies and enemies, reward, etc.
Similarly, Fred Hampton has his own hero’s journey as we watch him gain prominence, sacrifice, meet his allies and enemies, etc.
Can there be multiple heroes in a film? Presumably. Isn’t everyone the hero of their own story?
Judas and the Black Messiah is currently in theaters and available for streaming on HBOMax.
Written by: Steven HartmanSteven Hartman holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Columbia College and had internships at Jerry Bruckheimer Films and Village Roadshow Pictures, where he was the assistant to the director of development. His screenplays have placed in a variety of competitions including 'Fatty Arbuckle', which was a Top 5 Finalist in Big Break’s Historical Category in 2019. Steve is a full-time writer and creative video producer by day and a screenwriter and novelist by night.