'Judas and the Black Messiah' Star Dominique  Fishback on Playing Black Panther Chairman's Fiancee: "I Carry Her With Me Forever"

Dominique Fishback Photographed by Chris Patey
Photographed by Chris Patey

The actress details the life-changing experience of her role as Deborah Johnson in the political drama.

In director Shaka King's Judas and the Black Messiah, Dominique Fishback plays Deborah Johnson, the fiancee of Illinois Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and mother to his son, who was born just weeks after the activist was assassinated in Chicago in 1969 at age 21. The 29-year-old actress, writer and poet, who first earned attention for supporting roles in two David Simon projects, HBO's Show Me a Hero (about the fight over desegregating housing in Yonkers, New York) and The Deuce, tells THR about meeting the real Johnson (now known as Akua Njeri), having the opportunity to craft her own poetry for the film and how Hampton's story is ultimately a love story.

What was your first reaction when you read the script?

It went through so many iterations. [The first version I read was] maybe a year and a half out from filming. I wrote Shaka King an email with all the things I loved, and I said I had two thoughts but didn't want to overstep. He said, "You'll be playing her — you can't overstep. So give me notes."

Can you share what those thoughts were?

One of the first things Deborah says to [Hampton] is, "Do you like poetry?" But we never heard a poem, and I thought we might miss an opportunity. And Shaka was like, "I think you're right. Do you want to take a shot at that poem?" So that was my first interaction with him as a collaborator. The other note was that a lot of times Black women have to prove ourselves worthy of love before we're chosen. I wanted to make sure that [the film] wouldn't move so fast that we would miss the fact that he loved her for her mind and who she was, and she didn't have to prove anything to be loved.

Had you played a character based on a real person before?

My character Billie in Show Me a Hero was a real person, but I didn't get to meet her or talk about anything — I think she wanted to put it behind her. But I wrote her a letter just saying how much I loved Billie for all of her choices. I journaled as Billie as well. I didn't journal the same way as Deb because she is a poet, and because [her poetry] would be featured slightly in the movie. But it really allowed me to go into the thoughts that we don't get to see. Even when she first meets Chairman Fred at [her college] where she was a journalism major, I wrote an entry like she was trying to figure out her purpose. How come some people are born knowing their purpose when others don't? How is that fair? And she was hoping that she could go and see Chairman Fred talk and hopefully it would wake something up inside her, and thankfully it did.

Do you often journal in character?

Yes, I do it on every project. For Deborah Johnson, I really tried to think of the heart work, where she was coming from emotionally and building worlds that we don't get to see. Hopefully, when she looks at him, you can see a whole world behind her eyes. I have no control over how many scenes she gets or the edit, but I can have control over how I show up for her in those moments. And that's why I had a journal that she carries around, because we can see she has something else going on outside of the party and outside of Chairman Fred.

How did meeting Hampton's family affect your performance?

One of the things Mama Akua said was, "The Panthers were very disciplined, they did not speak out of turn." There were some things in the movie that my character says to Chairman Fred that she said she wouldn't say. How could I use those same words to show the urgency of this character for cinematic purposes but also honor Mama Akua? As I watched Daniel and learned to trust him and feel safe to share what I had experienced in the past and vice versa, [I realized] Chairman Fred warranted that kind of trust. When you trust people, you don't have to be hard or defensive. Even in a scene where she has to confront him, there's still a level of delicacy that she has with it, because she's going to speak her mind, but they don't have to yell at each other. They can be kind, even when they disagree.

Last year there were conversations about the number of lines actresses got to speak in their movies — I'm thinking of Margot Robbie in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Anna Paquin in The Irishman. Your performance, to me, is the heart of the film. Deborah represents what Fred Hampton had to sacrifice: not just his own life, but the life he was building with his partner. As an actress, how do you delve into a role that requires more emotional reactions than lines to deliver?

I definitely think we need more narratives for women to speak for themselves and tell their own stories. So in that sense, yeah, we want more. When Stranger Things first came out, Millie Bobby Brown's character wasn't speaking at all, and I remember thinking, "Dang, I want to get a chance to do that — to be able to convey stories mostly with my eyes." There's power in that. But I think we're moving in a different direction. Ultimately I'm writing my own stuff. And also the fact that Shaka, as a director, would say, "Do you want to take a shot at that poem?" It's all about people in power saying, "Hey, do you want to try this?" It gave Deb more of a voice. He says it made the character.

What were you thinking about as you were writing the poem?

It was really just me imagining what a mom could possibly want. And then the daunting idea of being Black in America. Being a mother and giving up what I could only imagine is the most precious thing. It's not just that the baby is precious — she is giving up the love of her life. There's a lot of sacrifice.

The assassination scene was shot on the 50th anniversary of Hampton's death. How did that affect you?

The night before, I couldn't sleep. I had knots in my stomach. My heart was pounding so hard. I had to realize my body couldn't tell the difference [between reality] and what we allowed ourselves to believe for four months. My main objective was: How do I get there in love? So that by the end, I knew why and how she could cover him with her body when the time came. We were borrowing the love Mama Akua and Chairman Fred got to share together before it was tragically and abruptly taken from them.

How do you come out of a role like this, to leave it all behind? Is that even possible?

I carry her with me forever. I've taken so much [from her] about how I want to move in a world, the type of woman that I want to be. I learned unconditional love by having her [inside me]. The Panthers believed in self-determination, and I left the set looking for freedom. I have more compassion for myself, and I'm able to have more compassion for other people. Everybody's just trying, you know. As long as I have compassion, I give myself the space to be wrong and to grow.

That the film came out when it did — after the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, but also during a pandemic, when social and economic inequalities became so visible … It feels so extremely relevant to America today.

I think about divine timing. Fred Hampton Jr. says people's political paws are open. People are more able to receive and hear and listen. Maybe what we learned wasn't right, and that's OK — that's the point.

I know that there's a lot of Black women that feel seen in terms of how they love — how they love Black men, how they love the community, how they love their children. She doesn't have to profess her love from the top of the hills. That's the quiet love that sits in us all the time when we're looking at the person that we love, or we're looking at our fathers or brothers when they go out into the streets. It is a love story — his love for the Black Panther Party, for the community, for the world.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in a March stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.