Judas and the Black Messiah is full of powerful lessons for screenwriters.
Judas and the Black Messiah is a powerful historical drama about the betrayal and assassination of Fred Hampton, leader of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party.
Aside from the parallels with current events and the clash between police and the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s hard not to conclude that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Or perhaps things are not changing fast enough and history will continue to repeat itself until we learn to stand up for what is right.
Here are some important lessons screenwriters can learn from this film.
[Disclaimer: Spoilers ahead!]
A Complex and Flawed Protagonist Creates Good Drama
This film’s focus is the “Judas,” Bill O’Neil, who’s caught between the Black Panthers and being an informant for the FBI, and who ultimately facilitated the assassination of Fred Hampton.
The inner struggle of this complex and deeply flawed character palpable — the audience is unsure if it’s okay to empathize with this man who has no good options in front of him, but who chooses to betray someone so focused on helping his community.
Watching Bill try to escape a shootout with the police while leaving members of the Black Panther party behind goes completely against what we expect a hero to do.
He is not a hero — he’s a man caught between two worlds.
We want him to do better, to be better, to make the right choice, but we are also deeply aware that would mean jail or death for him. Those are the hard situations and difficult choices we want to put in front of our characters.
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Find the Right Protagonist for Your Story
Imagine writing The Passion of the Christ from Judas’ point of view. Just as the title suggests, the character who is guiding the narrative is Bill and not Fred, which gives this story of betrayal a unique point of view.
Also, Fred is a guy who made all noble choices. He put the good of his community ahead of his own safety and desires. He’s nearly perfect. Those characters are very hard to write as protagonists.
But having these men be the center of this story means we get this great contrast of one only looking out for himself and the other only putting the greater good and the well-being of others ahead of anything else.
It would be tempting to make Fred the protagonist but since he was ultimately a victim of this assassination plot, he would end up as a passive protagonist. Watching William struggle with the choice to betray him while Fred is unaware is heartbreaking and it makes for great storytelling. However, watching a protagonist be unaware of a major event in the plot would feel like a letdown as an audience member.
Find the Structure of True Events to Build Your Structure
If you are writing a story based on a true story and real people, find the structure within the real events and build your script around them.
In this case, the inciting incident of the story is Bill being offered the deal to become an informant for the FBI. The climax is Fred being assassinated. Those two events are directly connected — the climax is essentially resolving the situation that started at the inciting incident.
Take a look at this other piece about the Inciting Incident and Climax if you’d like to get a few more examples.
We Need to Tell More of These Stories
We are living in complicated times when forces are trying to erase and censor certain parts of history by banning books and manipulating the curriculum taught in schools. The more stories like this are told, the less likely these forces will prevail.
The discomfort the audience feels watching this movie is so necessary. Discomfort is a catalyst for growth and change. We have power in our hands as storytellers to plant the seeds for change.
Let’s not waste it.
Julia Camara is an award-winning Brazilian screenwriter/filmmaker. Julia won a Telly Award for the sci-fi found footage feature Occupants. Julia’s feature directorial debut In Transit, won Best Experimental Film at four different festivals. Julia’s other writing credits include Area Q and Open Road.