Dominique Fishback plays Deborah Johnson, the fiancée of Black Panther Chairman Fred Hampton in the new film “Judas and the Black Messiah.” Her performance has earned attention from multiple critics groups for Best Supporting Actress.
Fishback recently spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Daniel Montgomery about what she knew of the story portrayed in the film, working with Daniel Kaluuya as Hampton and how the film resonates in today’s climate. Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: Deborah was in a relationship with Black Panther Chairman Fred Hampton when he was assassinated by the FBI. She was, in fact, there when it happened. Was it intimidating to play this real woman and these formative, often traumatic experiences that she was having in this movement?
Dominique Fishback: I don’t know that it was so much intimidating for what I was going to have to portray, but it was more so the fact that she’s still here with us and the legacy of the Black Panther Party, I’ve always looked up to them. I’ve researched them since I was a bit younger and so I didn’t want to do anything that would cause any more harm to the legacy. Oftentimes, the Black Panther Party has been vilified throughout history and I wanted to make sure that I was with a team that cared enough to get it right and try to tell the truth of what happened to Chairman Fred.
GD: Telling a story that’s recent enough that the people are alive to see it and alive to be involved in the telling of the story, how much were Fred Hampton’s family involved in the production?
DF: Once I signed on, Daniel and LaKeith [Stanfield] were already signed on and I signed on and actually Daniel and I, along with Shaka King, the writer-director, we went to Chicago and we sat with the family for about seven hours around the table and Chairman Fred Jr. went around and said, “I want to know why every single one of you want to do this movie.” They wanted to see how we would speak about them. It’s such a protective legacy and it was important. So doing that lent us some insight. We went to the home that Chairman Fred grew up in and got to really understand what they had been dealing with since his assassination and before.
GD: You said you’ve been researching the Black Panthers for a while. Did you know this story very closely before making the film or did you learn a lot that you didn’t know already throughout this process?
DF: Yeah, unfortunately, I mean, I grew up in Brooklyn and in school we didn’t really learn about the Black Panther Party and that part of history. It was really kind of kept from us and it wasn’t only until I got to college and I was a part of the Black Student Union that I heard of Chairman Fred Hampton and I heard that Deborah Johnson, now Mama Akura, or Akura Njeri, what she did while she was in the bed with him, which is cover his body while the bullets rained in the apartment. I only kind of heard about it, but I really didn’t know. So once I got involved with the family, I learned about the politics and the ideology of the Black Panther Party, including self-determination, that that was what they were looking for and the importance of that.
GD: And what was the most important things that you wanted to capture about Deborah and her experience and who she was just individually?
DF: So when I met with Shaka King, he said, “I want you to do this character. Read the script and let me know what you think.” So I read the script and I gave him a whole long email about all the things that I loved. And then I said, “Well, I have two thoughts, but I don’t want to overstep. So let me know if you want to hear them.” And he said, “Oh, you’ll be playing her. You can’t overstep. Give me your notes.” And he called them notes. I was like, “OK!” And one of them was one of the first things that Deb says to Fred in the movie is, “Do you like poetry?” And the Panthers are and were very poetic people and I think we missed an opportunity because we don’t hear a poem. He says, “I think you’re right. Do you want to take a shot at that poem?” So the poem that she shares with Fred in the movie is a poem that I got to write. And on top of that, because Shaka’s such a collaborator, I had this idea that, “Since she was a writer, could she have a journal that she carried around everywhere?” And so the journal in the movie is something that I really did a lot for. I journaled as her every day. I made poems about the first time they met, the first time they kissed, every single aspect of the life that even we don’t get to see on camera.
I wanted to really inundate myself and it was really important to me that we can tell that she loved him so much that this sacrificial gesture that she does in the end is believable. How do we get there? Not everybody is going to shield the person that they love’s body from bullets and she did it while she was pregnant. So how do I get there? So I would watch Daniel and I would say, “Well, Chairman Fred had these dimples, does Daniel have dimples?” And I would watch Daniel all the time and see how he took up space and see how that changed me and how we ebbed and flowed together. So it was all about awareness and having journaled and put a lot of songs like Nina Simone songs, there’s one called “Do What You Gotta Do,” and that was their theme song. She says, “Although it may mean I’ll never kiss your sweet lips again, pay that no mind. Go and find that dream of yours and come back and see me when you can.” So I think that it really encompassed their relationship.
GD: And that poem that you mentioned is such an important testament to who she is and what their relationship is. How long did that poem take you to write or did it just flow out of you because you were so in that mindspace?
DF: Well, actually, I wasn’t in the mindspace. I was filming “Project Power” for Netflix with Jamie Foxx and Joseph Gordon-Levitt and I was in the hair and makeup trailer and I was like, “Dang, I didn’t get Shaka the poem yet.” So I really just sat there in the hair and makeup trailer, I really just said, “OK, what are the aspects?” Shaka wanted me to make sure that it was kind of like the war, what does it mean to be a warrior, a comrade in different aspects? Because we have Judy Harmon, who’s played by Dominique Thorne, and she’s in security and she has a gun and she’s a revolutionary in that sense. But what are the other aspects in which women have to put their selves and their bodies on the line in different ways? So that was really important to me. Like, “OK, I want him to have the dimple and a twinkle in the eye. But there’s also the good and the bad of bringing this child to life. What does it mean to give something most precious to the world?”
GD: And Daniel Kaluuya’s performance is so electric when he’s on, giving speeches and protesting. But of course, with Deborah, we see this much more intimate side of him and we also see that Deborah is very much at his level in terms of her commitment and her intellect. What was it like going toe to toe with him, creating this relationship, especially when he is such a larger-than-life character?
DF: Yeah, well, that brings me to my second note that I gave Shaka. I gave him two, and one of them was, “I know it’s not a romance and I know we have a certain amount of time but I think it’s very important.” I think with Black women, especially in this genre, when it comes to love, a lot of times we’re not loved or chosen until we stand behind somebody. We have to continuously prove ourselves, whether we stand by them in jail or we have the baby. And I wanted to make sure that we knew that he loves her for her intellect and were she not pregnant with a baby, he would still be with her, that he loved her beyond her physical and the fact that she stood by him, by his side.
So that was really, really important and in terms of working with Daniel, I think honestly, I was just so open and ready to receive information and to learn. So when we went to Chicago and Chairman Fred Jr. asked everybody to say why do they want to do this film, and Daniel was sitting next to me, he went first and his story was so compelling, his passion, his understanding, the way he cared and wanted to evolve, I remember being galvanized by the way that he spoke. And I remember in that moment saying, “Oh, the way he just galvanized me, I wonder if that’s how Chairman Fred galvanized other people. And if that’s the case, all I have to do is be receptive to Daniel and what he brings organically and authentically and then we’ll have a rhythm.” We spoke a lot. I confided with him about a bunch of things. We talked about books and it was great. He’s a great leader. I said he was the best Fred a girl could ask for! That’s what I said when we wrapped (laughs).
GD: There’s also, of course, so much conflict with her character, dealing with his commitments where he’s willing to give his life to the cause and there’s one scene in particular where he’s giving a speech about that and we see Deborah watching and everyone else is so excited and cheering and she’s very much like, “Wait, what does this mean for us?” And it’s all just happening on your face, just the emotions of what’s sinking in. What’s it like to have that kind of reactive moment where you’re sort of showing us who this woman is in a very internal way where it’s just on her face like that?
DF: Well, I didn’t go to high school for performing arts, but I thought it was really important to learn the craft of acting. So I went to school and I studied theater and a lot of times we talked about breaking the scenes down and starting one place and ending somewhere else, just in terms of actor work, of character development. So I look at the scenes and I say, “Well, what is the subtext? What is the world in which she’s living it? Yes, she believes in everything he’s saying, but she still only human and she’s only 19 years old.” You know what I mean? What does it mean to know that you love somebody, that you’re bringing a child into the world and that he’s absolutely right? And it reminded me, I was reading a lot of Langston Hughes poems, and I have to look up the title for this particular one but this one was about dreams and it came to me. I journaled as Deb and I said, “Well, what if Chairman Fred is the dream or he’s my dream?” And sometimes when we have dreams that are so big, we don’t want to let them go. We don’t want to give them to people for fear that they will misuse them or they won’t know how to treat them. But at the end of the day, if we hold back and keep our dreams inside, we don’t service anybody. We don’t service the world. We don’t service ourselves and we kind of dishonor the dream. So in that sense, she had to say, “OK, if he’s the dream, if he’s my dream, if he’s a dream of the people, then I have to relinquish him. I have to be willing to let that go because it’s bigger than me.” And that’s kind of what was happening in that scene.
GD: And as you mentioned, Deborah was 19 at the time. Fred Hampton was killed when he was just 21. It always strikes me when I’m thinking about this story, how young these characters were and how committed and how knowledgeable and how thoughtful and how much they were already leaders at such a young age. What are your thoughts about characters who have this within them when they’re teenagers or just barely out of their teenage years?
DF: It’s something that I talk about a lot, because when I look back at the ‘60s and even the early ‘90s and stuff, because I was a huge fan of Selena and Aaliyah, and when I think that they were only 22 and 23 years old when they when they died, they had such maturity, such femininity. So when I look back at the ‘60s and I see that Chairman was only 21 years old, but he was a man, it was like he had lived many lifetimes already, but sometimes especially as Black and Brown people, we get the burden of our ancestors. We get the burden of a history that didn’t treat us well or didn’t see the value in us. So we’re carrying those things along as we go and it’s up to us to reimagine, to break social constructs, to find our true selves. And that’s why I’m like, “Meditation. Meditate and know yourself.” And I think in that sense, we’ll evolve in the speed that they kind of did, I guess.
GD: And of course, it all builds to the scene where the FBI raids the apartment and kills Fred and I can imagine, having played these characters and having learned about their lives, that it must have been an especially tense scene to shoot, and technical, also. There’s a lot happening in that scene. What was that process like and was that something that you kind of needed to prepare for a lot more intensively?
DF: We actually shot the assassination scene on the 50th anniversary of Chairman Fred being assassinated. It’s just kind of how it fell, and so the energy around that day and around the studio in that replica apartment was very high. It was somber and it was very deep and even the night before, I realized, because I went into it wanting to really give myself, I prayed to be a vessel to give myself to the spirit of these characters and the stories that I’m representing. So by the end, that night before, my stomach was in knots, my heart was beating so fast and I was like, “What’s going on?” And I kept telling myself, “No, Daniel’s going to be OK. We’re just doing a movie.” But my body couldn’t differentiate between what was real and what wasn’t. So I realized that I asked to be able to hold that kind of love and so by the end of filming, it was there and I had to ultimately, that night, cry in a hotel room and mourn the love and the loss. And I got the opportunity to speak to Mama Akua, formerly known as Deborah Johnson yesterday and she said seeing Daniel and I made her miss that love. So that was very touching for me because we really just wanted to do the family justice and the story justice. And that day, I got to set and I was really quiet. Everything was really just slow. I don’t even have the words to express what that day was like. I mean, in terms of preparation, I listened to “Do What You Gotta Do,” that Nina Simone song, in between while adjusting hair and makeup, because all those things are still happening but you’re in the mindset. We had given so much to each other, on and offscreen, at the time that it didn’t take much thinking about. We felt the responsibility and we felt the loss of Chairman Fred.
GD: This story is so relevant in terms of contextualizing where we currently are with Black Lives Matter and the relationship between Black people in this country and law enforcement, but you shot this, of course, before the events of 2020, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd. Could you have imagined where the culture would be at, that this film would fit so importantly into discussions and situations that we were already living through?
DF: Yeah, well, that’s what’s unfortunate about this country. It hasn’t changed. Eric Garner was a part of my family. Erica Garner was my cousin and she became an activist after the murder of her father and she died at 27 of a heart attack. So it’s not new to me. It’s not new to so many other Black people. So I guess the difference of 2020 was how much of people who didn’t come from the same walks of life came to rally together and it reminded me of what Chairman Fred was trying to do with the Rainbow Coalition. At 21 years old, he had a vision that if all people under the same oppressive government came together, we can make a difference and he got the gang members, he got the white, the Spanish, Hispanic, Latino people together with Black people and the Black Panther Party and he had a vision and they took him before it was able to come to fruition. So in 2020, when the marches were going on and it was happening all across the world, I just thought, “Wow, this is what Chairman Fred was thinking.”
Also, people were open, more receptive and I think maybe if this had come out during the heart of the protests, I don’t know, maybe people wouldn’t have been so ready for it. I think now, we’ve built up, people are starting to face the truth of this country and the injustices that Black and Brown people face, so maybe people are just open now, open and ready to hear truths that were buried for so long. Chairman Fred’s death, I don’t know if it’s the only one, but it was one of the only ones that was proven for sure that the FBI and the Chicago police planned this out and they intentionally murdered this young man while he laid defenseless in his bed, sleeping. So that’s the difference. There’s so many speculations about who killed such and such, who killed this person, but with Chairman Fred, it’s proven in the court of law. And still, the justice wasn’t really served.