It is nearly impossible to tell identical twins Keith and Kenny Lucas apart (even their mom struggles). But that’s OK, because for these Oscar-nominated screenwriters, being inseparable is part of the package.
As students at TCNJ, Keith and Kenny Lucas ’07 were bookish, set to go to law school, and not all that funny. “I think people saw us as serious,” says Kenny. They returned to the college in October 2021, now brilliant comedians, law school dropouts, and co-writers of the Oscar-nominated film Judas and the Black Messiah.
During their visit, The Lucas Brothers headlined several campus events: Lorna Johnson-Frizell, interim dean of the School of the Arts and Communication, led a master class discussion between them and a small group of students from the philosophy, African American studies, and communication studies departments that focused on several specific scenes from Judas. A broader conversation about the film and their life was held in Kendall Hall and moderated by professors Christopher Fisher and Piper Kendrix Williams.
Lucky for us, the twins also sat down with TCNJ Magazine to talk philosophy, the red carpet, their bond as brothers, and their affection for Jimmy Fallon.
TCNJ Magazine: When you were TCNJ students, did you ever think you would be where you are now?
Kenny Lucas: No.
Keith Lucas: Not at all.
Kenny: Back then, I was probably terrified of an exam coming up or something. There was a calculus exam I had, that I bombed. I really learned a lot about myself from that.
TM: Like what?
Kenny: That I am really bad at calculus.
TM: Is that why you became philosophy majors?
Kenny: Our first year at TCNJ, we were political science majors and we didn’t love it. It was a lot of statistics and like I said, I don’t like math. Keith actually came across philosophy.
Keith: I was helping with a book drive for student government, and I was doing a terrible job at it because I was reading books instead of giving them out. I stumbled across Plato’s Five Dialogues and it just blew my mind.
Kenny: We signed up for philosophy our sophomore year, and it changed our lives. It opened up our worlds to guys, mostly guys, who pontificated on things that we just never thought of before: What is real? What’s the nature of being? What’s the nature of justice?
Keith: That’s why I love philosophy. It pushes you to question everything, for better or worse.
Kenny: Yes, it does. Why am I paying taxes? Should I pay rent? [Laughs]. But that kind of questioning is fundamental to our creative process. It’s made us much better writers.
TM: Such good writers, in fact, that you were nominated for an Oscar for best screenplay for Judas and the Black Messiah. The film is about FBI informant William O’Neal who infiltrates the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party to gather intelligence on its chairman, Fred Hampton, who is then assassinated. But it was here, at TCNJ, where you got the idea for the film, right?
Keith: Judas started here. We were in a class with professor Chris Fisher that covered African American history from 1865 to the present.
Kenny: We learned about Fred Hampton, and I was just like, “Why is this story not widely known?” I mean, it’s so fascinating. You have espionage, you have the FBI. You have the makings of a classic thriller.
Keith: The story was overwhelming. I can’t believe the government assassinated a citizen for exercising his constitutional rights. It stayed with me.
Kenny: Once we got into entertainment, we felt it was our duty to bring this story to a broader national audience. And, coincidentally, we took a philosophy and film course and we studied The Conformist, a Bernardo Bertolucci movie. It had a huge influence on how we structured Judas.
Keith: So those two key parts, that all happened at TCNJ.
Kenny: Without TCNJ, we would’ve never been nominated for an Oscar.
TM: Was the Academy Awards ceremony as glamorous and exciting as it looks on TV?
Keith: It was too much stress. I had a strong inclination that we were not going to win, because if you follow it, you know which movie is getting the most buzz.
Kenny: I thought we were going to win. And then they brought out one award. I was like, “We have four writers. Maybe we’re just going to share one.”
Keith: It was also in Los Angeles, near skid row. We’re driving to the Oscars, and there’s homeless people everywhere. And I was like, “This juxtaposition is unsettling.”
Kenny: And we made a movie about class. It just felt very uncomfortable.
TM: Judas was a long time coming, but it seemed to hit audiences at a meaningful moment for racial injustice. Was that intentional?
Kenny: The struggle for liberation for African Americans, it’s an ever-present topic because even to this day we are sometimes treated as second-class citizens.
Keith: The movie-making process is so nebulous, you don’t know when things are going to get made and things can derail at any time. We were just fortunate for it to come out right around this time, because with George Floyd and so many other murders, our story just resonated. But we couldn’t have predicted that.
Kenny: I like to say we’re comedians. So we have great timing.
TM: Let’s talk about your comedy. Before Judas, you were primarily comedians. And it was something you discovered and decided to pursue right before you were each set to graduate from law school.
Kenny: I didn’t really connect with law intellectually. I couldn’t fathom doing it for another 30 years. I was at NYU and I was right across the street from the Comedy Cellar. And I would go there to work through some of my issues that I was having with law school. And I fell in love with comedy and entertainment and I thought, “I could see myself doing this.”
Keith: He convinced me somehow, he just called me one day. I was at Duke.
Kenny: I said, “One day, we’re going to get nominated for an Oscar.” That was my pitch.
Keith: I thought he was crazy at the time, but I didn’t really have the passion for law either.
TM: Would your friends say you had a reputation for being funny?
Kenny and Keith: No!
Keith: Our humor is very witty at times, which means we’re not like …
Kenny: … We’re not like laugh-out-loud funny. We were never class clowns.
Keith: We were very academic. We wanted to be professors.
TM: We hear Jimmy Fallon helped you get your start.
Kenny: We love Jimmy. He gave us our big break in 2012.
Keith: We auditioned to do stand-up on The Tonight Show, and we didn’t think we were going to get it ’cause we only had five minutes of material.
Kenny: We literally had five minutes. I was like, “If you guys don’t like this, we can’t give you any more.” Somehow we got it, and Jimmy has been really supportive since.
TM: How does where you come from play out in your work?
Keith: We grew up in Newark, New Jersey, and people see it as a negative place, but people were always laughing, always joking around. Even in the most tragic circumstances, you need jokes to sort of get through it. Comedy plays a large role in dealing with tragedy, so they’re intimately connected.
TM: You talk a lot about having a tough childhood. What aspects of that do you think have contributed to your success?
Kenny: It’s just grit and grind. Our mom worked three jobs. She was a single mom. She instilled in us the principle of being a hard worker and never letting disadvantages take you out of that mindset.
Keith: We had a ton of support from aunts too. All of our aunts protected us and taught us values. Not just about work, but just trying to be decent human beings. And I think that has helped too. People tend to like us for whatever reason.
Kenny: Some people [laughs].
Keith: We’re writing a movie right now that’s about Newark and our relationship with our father. We’re working with producer Judd Apatow and he pushed us to probe that. We didn’t want to talk about those feelings when we first started making films.
Kenny: It was difficult to wade into that heavy, emotional stuff: The idea of not having your father around and growing up as men in a place that was very tough. It was hard to mine for humor, but Judd pushed us to go there.
Keith: We just finished the script, and hopefully it will come out in 2023.
TM: You are also working on a remake of Revenge of the Nerds, right?
Kenny: We just finished that script.
Keith: We’re acting in that one. Acting, writing, producing.
TM: You guys wear lot of hats. But it seems like above all you’re writers. What’s that process like? Does one of you start and the other writes the next sentence?
Kenny: We’re intense. We outline like crazy. So much of a script depends on how structured it is and how logical it is, which we learned from philosophy. We’ll spend weeks, months …
Keith: … years …
Kenny: … years, sometimes, just perfecting the outline. And then from the outline, once we feel comfortable with it, we can branch off. I can write a scene, he’ll write a scene, and then we’ll swap.
Keith: We’re constantly tweaking. Constantly rewriting.
Kenny: And we like to write in different mediums. We’ll write sketch, we’ll write animation, we’ll write TV.
Keith: It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as we’re writing every day and working on language.
Kenny: And every day, I feel like I’m a fraud. I swear, when we got nominated for an Oscar, I was like, “No, this is not right. They made a mistake.” I emailed the Academy, “Take it back.”
Picture: Bill Cardoni