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How do you bring gravitas to the supporting female role in a biopic largely about men? Dominique Fishback offers a masterclass in such a gesture in writer-director Shaka King’s “Judas and the Black Messiah.” Fishback stars as Deborah Johnson, the girlfriend of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), Chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panthers, who was assassinated at age 21.
Fishback, a breakout from David Simon HBO projects — including “Show Me a Hero” and “The Deuce” — is a constant source of refreshment in the movie, and that’s largely due to her own influence on King and his script. Before filming took place in the fall of 2019, Fishback wrote the filmmaker an essay detailing everything she envisioned for playing Deborah Johnson who, in the film, stands by Hampton’s side but has a life and mind of her own.
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“I wanted to make sure that in this genre, although it’s not necessarily a romance, that in love, especially for Black women, we see she is worthy of his love before having to do anything,” Fishback told IndieWire. “She didn’t have to prove it. She didn’t have to stand by him through jail or become pregnant for him to commit to her. I wanted to make sure that we knew he loved her for her mind, her intellect, not for her body.”
Johnson, a fellow Black Panther Party member, falls in love with Hampton in part because of his persuasive presence and powerful oratory style. They share a passion for language, and it’s one Fishback herself possesses. During a crucial scene of the film, Johnson, pregnant, recites a stirring poem to Hampton that the actress wrote herself.
“I really just wanted to make sure that she had a life outside of the Black Panther Party, so that’s where the journal comes into play,” she said, referring to her character’s tendency to observe and record the world around her. “If we see her from the corner of [our] eye, if we see her writing something, subconsciously we register things are working in her mind.”
King, who admired her naturalism in “Show Me a Hero,” said he specifically wrote the role for Fishback without requiring an audition. She didn’t have to audition to play Darlene on “The Deuce” either, as showrunner David Simon took her aside during ADR on “Show Me a Hero” to tell her he wrote a part for her in the show about the rise of the porn industry in the 1970s. (Alexa Fogel serves as casting director on both the Simon projects and “Judas,” which Fishback called a coincidence.)
Like her Deborah Johnson, Darlene in “The Deuce” also wields a literary curiosity, which is something that the 29-year-old Fishback, an ardent reader and writer herself, found compelling. “I read the script and instantly loved Darlene,” she said. “She was reading books and watching ‘Tale of Two Cities,’ I thought, wow, this is not going to be your typical idea of sex workers and sex work.”
With “Judas and the Black Messiah,” King wrote the roles for all his main characters with the people who played them in mind: Johnson for Fishback, Hampton for Kaluuya, FBI informant Bill O’Neal for Lakeith Stanfield, and O’Neal’s FBI handler Roy Mitchell for Jesse Plemons. All came on board, and in preparation for taking on such historic roles previously untouched by mainstream cinema, the cast flew to Chicago to meet with Fred Hampton, Jr. and Deborah Johnson, now a writer who goes by Akua Njeri. “Fred, Jr. asked us all why we wanted to do this film,” Fishback said. “She said that [during] the assassination, she did not cry. That was really important. So we wanted to honor her and that moment.”
Fishback said that in order to get into the headspace of Johnson in the late 1960s, “I used my imagination,” she said. “I really just tried to show the dichotomy, the reality of what’s going on, the beauty of bringing a child into the world, but also the fact that she’s bringing a child into a war zone. I wrote that poem in April . I hadn’t even gotten into character. I hadn’t put her clothes on yet. It was just divine. When Shaka saw something in each of us that he wanted, I feel like it was all alignment, and intuitively, innately, my spirit has something it felt like it could say. I didn’t have to try really hard to find it.”
One way Fishback put herself in Johnson’s shoes at that time — especially as Hampton was imprisoned and then, upon release, reunited with his now-pregnant girlfriend — was by putting together a playlist of Nina Simone songs. “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” “Backlash Blues,” “I Put a Spell on You,” and “I Loves You, Porgy” were among them. But one song, “Do What You Gotta Do,” turned out to be especially synchronous, as the lyrics almost seem to tell the story of Fred Hampton and Deborah Johnson at the end of his life:
It’s my own fault for what happens to my heart
You see I’ve always known you’d go
But you just do what you gotta do
My wild sweet love
Though it may mean I’ll never kiss your sweet lips again
Pay that no mind
Just find that dappled dream of yours
Come on back and see me when you can
“If you listen to the lyrics, you’ll see how much it’s Deborah and Fred’s story,” Fishback said of the song, where both parties appear to be equally stubborn in their ways. Deborah “has her own opinions,” Fishback said. “When he finally asks, she gives it. A lot of times we’re not asking Black women how they feel.”
“Judas and the Black Messiah” is now in select theaters and streaming on HBO Max.
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