You might not be expecting romance from “Judas and the Black Messiah,” since it’s being sold as the tragic clash of two men: Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), the young and charismatic chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, and Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), the F.B.I. informant whose betrayal of Hampton would result in the leader’s killing by the authorities.
Still, it’s Hampton’s shy, deepening connection to the activist Deborah Johnson — who now goes by Akua Njeri — that gives the movie its heart and soul. Credit Dominique Fishback for that: The 29-year-old actress, who appeared in the HBO mini-series “Show Me a Hero” as well as the Netflix movie “Project Power,” is tender and moving as Johnson, delivering a breakout performance that proves she can more than hold her own in a cast of high-profile heavyweights.
To Fishback, the project is a perfect fit. “I’ve been manifesting a romance role for a really long time,” she said, “but I also get to honor the legacy of Chairman Fred and the Black Panther Party.” The movie also drew upon her skills as a writer and poet: In one pivotal scene, a pregnant Johnson recites a poem to Hampton that Fishback wrote herself.
In a conversation over video chat last week, Fishback eagerly cited some of the swoon-worthy pop-culture romances she grew up on, like those in “New Girl,” “The Notebook” and “Gossip Girl.” But when it came to the connection between Hampton and Johnson, Fishback made sure to keep it real: “Just because they’re revolutionaries and powerful people onstage doesn’t mean that in their private lives, when it comes to falling in love, they’re going to know everything.”
These are edited excerpts from our conversation.
Tell me about your first meeting with Shaka King, who directed “Judas and the Black Messiah.”
He wrote the character for me after seeing me [play a young mother] in “Show Me a Hero,” which was one of my first things. So it was nice to not only feel seen in terms of the work that I had already done, but in what he believed I could do. And also, I was writing my own Romeo and Juliet love story about the Black Panther Party called “Gwendolyn and Seiko,” so the fact that he could connect to me with a love story and the Black Panther Party without ever having met me, or even knowing what I was personally working on — that felt like alignment.
I read the script, and I sent him an email about all of the things that I love. And then I said, “I have two other thoughts but I don’t want to overstep, so let me know if you want to hear them.” And he said, “You’ll be playing her, you can’t overstep. Give me your notes.”
And what were those notes?
The first one was that one of the first things she says to Chairman Fred is, “Do you like poetry?” But then we never hear a poem, and the Panthers were and are very poetic people, so I thought we missed an opportunity. And he said, “I think you’re right. Do you want to take a shot at that poem?” So now the poem she reads to Chairman Fred is a poem that I got to write.
When he said that, I was like, “All right, Dom. What would I think about my child if I was a mother? Oh, Chairman Fred has these dimples; will the child have his dimples? Daniel has this twinkle in his eyes; will the child have his twinkle? What are the dichotomies? What am I dealing with in that world?”
What was it like to shoot the scene where you recite that poem to Daniel in bed?
Every time I walked into that bedroom, I couldn’t stop crying. And I knew that Mama Akua didn’t cry — even during the assassination in real life — so I was really self-conscious about crying. Then I realized, “Well, Dom, if you prayed to be a vessel for spirit and storytelling to flow through you, that means you relinquish control.” If it’s coming down, then it’s not for me to decide — it’s my DNA, my spirit. I felt the ancestors really just wanted to wail.
What was the second note you gave Shaka about the script?
I’m an epic romantic, so I’m going to be coming to the story with that lens — I know it’s not solely about their love story, but that’s what I’m going to be looking at. I just wanted to bring awareness to the fact that in this genre, for Black women, a lot of times we have to prove ourselves in love before we’re deemed worthy of a commitment. We have to be ride-or-die with the guy through jail, or we get pregnant and only then are we committed. I wanted to make sure that beyond any heroic gesture that she ultimately does, that just by her existence, by her essence, she’s worthy of love.
Fred and Deborah are so young when they fall in love, and Deborah is just 19 when they meet. What did 19-year-old Dominique think about love?
I always say I’m a teenager at heart. I remember being interviewed by a producer, and they were like, “So, what are you watching?” And I’m like, “‘Vampire Diaries’ for the seventh time!” I love how giddy I felt when Damon and Elena got together, and Ed Sheeran would play perfectly on cue to pull at your heartstrings. This was really my opportunity to just sink into that part of my teenage self that thought, “Maybe that stuff only happens in movies. Maybe I have to be in movies to get this stuff to happen to me.”
So there’d be a lot of times when I was like, “Daniel, are you going to hold my hand?” There was one time where he was like, “Ugh,” and Shaka said, “Yeah, I think you guys are going to be entering, and Daniel, you’re going to be holding her hand.” And I just looked at him. [Laughs.]
What else did you two do to make sure that romantic bond would be believable?
Before I started, we all had to go to Chicago to meet the family and [Hampton’s son], and my jacket wasn’t good enough to bear the Chicago weather. Daniel said, “Just take mine.” So already, in our first meeting, I’m wrapped in his spirit, wrapped in something that’s his. And on a personal level, I was sharing things with Daniel and Daniel was sharing things with me, so we really learned how to trust each other. We knew what we were doing it for, that it was bigger than us.
Trust is an underrated part of movie chemistry. In a lot of ways, love is about having the other person’s back.
When you have that trust in somebody, you don’t have to be defensive or on guard, and that’s what I learned personally with Daniel. We went bowling once, and this white guy decided that he wanted to take a fry from my plate. I don’t know him at all, and he takes a fry from my plate! And before I could speak, Daniel and Ian [Duff, another cast member] snatched the fry from his hand and said, “What are you doing?” They all kind of gathered around me, and that was the first time I could say, “Oh wow, this is what it feels like when you don’t have to advocate for yourself.”
Coming from New York and navigating an industry that often overlooks women and Black women, I don’t want to be hard, I don’t want to advocate for myself — I want to lean more into my divine feminine, where I receive. So it was really nice to have them around me, and it was automatic! I didn’t have to look to them and be like, “So, y’all not gonna do nothing?”
Do roles like this one stick with you after shooting, or are you able to move on easily?
This one was particularly difficult. I don’t know if she’s left me and I really don’t want her to, because I feel I learned unconditional love in a way and how I want to navigate in the world and how I want to treat people. I left seeking freedom. Self-determination is something that the Black Panther Party spoke about, so when I left Cleveland [where the film was shot] in 2019, I made 2020 my freedom year — or, my “Free Dom” year.
I thought I was going to travel and do X, Y and Z, and I actually ended up being quarantined. But I started meditating so much, journaling more, getting to know myself, getting to know my triggers, getting to know why and if or where I was fearful in love and how I wanted to operate moving forward. And I realized freedom is all in the mind.
You’ve been inspired by the romances you saw in the movies. How will it feel if someone else is inspired by the romance they see in “Judas and the Black Messiah”?
I might shed some tears. For this one to be a real-life love story, and to represent somebody who could be so courageous in love that she would shield his body with hers, that is the most epic thing I’ve ever seen and heard. The fact that it wasn’t just written, it was real — that’s massive for love.
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