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Monday, December 6, 2021

Dominique Fishback Is The Heart Of ‘Judas And The Black Messiah’

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“Judas and the Black Messiah,” the new film by Shaka King about Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton, has emerged as one of the big contenders this awards season, which comes as no surprise. It tells the story of the FBI’s orchestrated killing of 21-year-old Hampton, a visionary revolutionary for Black liberation who was ultimately given up by party member William O’Neal.

The performances by actors Daniel Kaluuya (who plays Hampton) and Lakeith Stanfield (who plays O’Neal) have been the most lauded, perhaps because they present such a stark contrast, a balanced duality of chaos versus order, aimlessness versus purpose. 

And yet the most integral performance in the film is that of 29-year-old Dominique Fishback. Fishback plays Deborah Johnson (who has since changed her name to Akua Njeri), Hampton’s pregnant fiancee who was sleeping beside him the night he was shot to death during a pre-dawn police raid in 1969.

In a new companion podcast to the film, Njeri says of Fishback: “Well, I don’t think whoever played me had to look like me. But Dominique fit the bill. She presented, like, a nice side — but I knew that she could cut somebody.”

That simultaneous softness and strength of Fishback’s portrayal of Njeri tempers a film that at times becomes too preoccupied with Hampton’s sanctity. Most importantly, while another actor may have allowed her to disappear into the background — as the strong, stoic girlfriend there simply to emphasize Hampton’s humanity at strategic moments — Fishback humanizes Njeri and all the Black women who perform the political and emotional labor that keeps movements going. 

When I spoke to Fishback last month about her work in the movie, she said that providing the emotional core of the film was one of the most important things she considered after she was offered the role. 

“When I met with Shaka in a cafe in Brooklyn, he was so open to everything. He said, ‘Read the script, let me know your thoughts,’” Fishback explained.  

“After I read it, I gave him a whole long list in an email, everything that I love. And I said, ‘I had some thoughts, but I don’t want to overstep. So let me know.’ And he said, ‘You’ll be playing her, you can’t overstep.’ He was such a collaborator in that way.”

Among the notes Fishback had for King was whether Njeri and her son Fred Hampton Jr. would be involved with the filmmaking process in some capacity, because, Fishback said, “I never wanted to do anything that would be detrimental to the legacy of the Black Panther Party.” Knowing that Hampton’s family was indeed involved put her mind at ease. 

For the next note, Fishback emphasized the importance of highlighting the love, care and respect that existed between the couple at the time. 

“I know it’s not a love story, but a lot of times, you know, with Black women in this genre, we get looked over so much so that we’re never committed to or chosen before we have to prove ourselves,” she told King.  

“We stand by them through jail, or we have a baby or whatever. And I want to make sure that we know that he loves her because of her mind and that regardless of whether she was pregnant or not, he would be with her. That’s at the core and not for anything she had to prove.” 

In order to find and embody her character more deeply, Fishback started keeping a journal that she filled, in character, with poems, thoughts, dreams. She carries that journal, which serves as a catalyst for Fred and Deborah’s connection, throughout the film. Fishback wrote a poem for every major moment Fred and Deborah share in the film, from their first meeting to their first kiss. Fishback also wrote the most prominently featured poem in the film, in which Deborah grapples with the reality of what it means to be in love with someone dedicated to liberation and the sacrifice that entails. 

“I really allowed myself to play, draw pictures, you know? I tapped into a lot of Nina Simone, especially a particular song called ’Do What You Gotta Do.’ And if you listen and look up those lyrics, it is so parallel to their story, the fact that she’s like, ‘You know, I knew that loving you was a risk and it’s my own fault what happens to my heart. Just come back and see me when you can.’”

To Fishback, this was the theme of their love. “The sacrificial gesture that she makes at the end of the film, I wanted to make sure that I could get there. How do you love somebody so much that you are willing to lay your body over them as dozens of bullets are flying through an apartment? Like, how do I get there? By the end, I feel like we all wanted to open our spirits to be a vessel.”

Sacrifice is an important theme in the context of a film with a titular reference to the story of Christ’s betrayal by one of his disciples. But then there’s also the sacrifice that Njeri made, that so many Black women make: Black women who provide support, unwavering loyalty, who form the backbone of movements, who contend constantly with loss, who must show strength even under the most dire of circumstances.

The scene depicting the raid on Hampton’s Chicago apartment in which he was executed was shot on the 50th anniversary of his death, according to Fishback. In the scene, Fishback’s face is foregrounded, while in the background, an officer shoots an unconscious Hampton, smugly declaring, “He’s good and dead now.” It is a haunting moment, made all the more haunting by the expression on Fishback’s face. Its power is impossible to explain; you simply have to watch the movie to witness it. 

“Mama Akua was adamant that she did not cry that day. She did not cry and that was very important,” Fishback explained. “She said as they carried Chairman Fred’s body out, they were chanting, ‘Chairman Fred is dead.’ They were smiling and laughing. There were pictures of them smiling. So she said, if there’s any control that I have over the situation, it’s that I am not going to let them see me cry, I’m not going to give them the satisfaction.” 

Having to be strong is, in itself, a kind of sacrifice. Often a thankless one. The absence of tears only emphasizes the trauma, the carnage and the cruelty of white supremacy. And so that moment, and the way Fishback plays it, is the most important moment in the film because it forms a concise portrait of Black pain, Black sacrifice, of the revolutionaries who, as Fishback puts it, “have to calm the fires that this country has set upon us and upon our communities.” 

“When I watched the movie and I look at that moment,” Fishback said, “it reminds me of the Black women who have lost their children to police terrorism now and how Black women have to go on the podium and be strong for everybody else and not shed a tear.”

“Judas and the Black Messiah” is about many things, one of which is the dynamics of power. Who has it, who wields it, and how? White power is selfish, individualistic, preoccupied with dominance, homogeneity, capital, categorization. The film depicts another conception of power, power that is about the collective, about trust, about collaboration.

This seems to have been one of the biggest takeaways for Fishback, whose presence in the film is as powerful and integral as Kaluuya’s and Stanfield’s. 

“I learned to trust Black men in a way that I never, I had never had before. And in working with Daniel and LaKeith and Shaka, everybody held space, everybody on that cast is so respectful,” she said.

“My voice was heard, my body was protected. I was shielded in so many ways that it taught me unconditional love, and how I operate in the world now is completely different, and the woman that I am and that I will become is highly influenced by the time that I got to share embodying the love that Chairman Fred and Mama Akua got to share together.”

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