It’s a quiet and tender scene toward the end of Judas and the Black Messiah, director Shaka King’s film about 21-year-old Black Panther leader Fred Hampton and the 1969 government plot to assassinate him, that lingers: Hampton’s pregnant fiancée, Deborah Johnson, recites a poem she’s written for him. Through tears, she sits on their bed, laying out what’s at stake for their unborn child and for the movement.
“We scream and we shout and we live by this anthem... But is power to the people, really worth the ransom? .... Born pure to the blood, with the heart of a panther. No regrets… I know my answer.”
Moments later, Hampton is killed in his sleep by police during a raid of his Chicago home. The camera stays focused on Johnson, who was in bed next to him, as she is forced out of the apartment and handcuffed. Stoically, heartbreakingly, she won’t let so much as a tear drop. Judas and the Black Messiah isn’t a romance, but the scenes of Hampton and Johnson’s romance imbue the film with heart.
That poem wasn’t in the original script. It was written by Dominique Fishback, the 30-year-old actress who portrays Johnson. After reading the script for the first time she wrote to King: “The Panthers are very poetic people, but we don’t hear a poem at all. And I think maybe we miss an opportunity.” King agreed and asked her to write it.
So much of Fishback’s life seems like preparation for this role. Growing up, she learned to love her natural hair after seeing the women of the Black Panther Party own theirs so confidently. Before she was an actor, she was a spoken-word poet, performing around New York while attending Pace University. When King reached out to Fishback about playing Johnson, she was writing her own romance about the Panthers, Gwendolyn and Sekou, inspired by Romeo and Juliet. As part of her research for writing that screenplay, she read A Taste of Power, by former party leader Elaine Brown, as she felt it imperative to get a woman’s perspective on the movement. And in 2019, without knowing it had been Hampton’s morning ritual to listen to the speeches of Malcolm X, she too began listening to his words each day.
“I find that the universe is always prepping us,” Fishback says now. “Even when we don’t know.”
Fishback has always been drawn to performing. When the children’s musical theater company TADA! visited her East New York, Brooklyn, elementary school, something sparked. She auditioned to join the company several times, only to face repeated rejection. Fishback’s mother urged her to try acting instead of singing. “You’re so dramatic,” she told her daughter. “I think you could really do it.”
Everything clicked when she joined the MCC Theater Youth Company in Manhattan. “I started writing spoken-word poetry and scenes and monologues, projecting my voice and enunciating and finding my light,” she says of her time there. In Judas, Fishback’s onscreen chemistry with Daniel Kaluuya, who plays Fred Hampton, is explosive. “Nothing was premeditated,” she says of their relationship. “We were just kind of existing.” Because very little footage of Johnson exists from that time, much of Fishback’s performance was based on her own gut instinct.
Poetry became an unlikely tool, essential to building a dimensional character. The actress selected poems and specific Nina Simone songs to complement her scenes; she copied down the poetry of Langston Hughes in a journal she carried everywhere. “I’m building this world that we don’t get to see on camera,” she says. “But I know it’s of the utmost importance because when it comes down to those moments where you’re not hearing her speak and you’re looking into her eyes, it’ll come out. Because life has been lived.”
Before production began, Fishback (along with King, Kaluuya, and producer Charles D. King) met Johnson (who now goes by Akua Njeri) and her son, Fred Hampton, Jr., for an hours-long meeting at Hampton’s childhood home in Chicago. Their time together ultimately convinced the family to give their blessing to the project.
Njeri and Hampton, Jr. visited the set during filming in Cleveland, and Fishback made sure to steer clear until her scenes were wrapped for the day. At one point, she learned that Njeri, who is also called Mama Akua, wanted to see her. “That was Deborah Johnson out there. You did that,’” Fishback recalls Mama Akua telling her. Hampton, Jr. was in tears. “And so that was a complete weight off of my shoulder because it made me feel, ‘Okay, I can go full force into this direction.’”
The night before Fishback was set to film the scene when Hampton is murdered, she couldn’t sleep. “I had knots in my stomach,” she says. “And I realized that my body couldn’t tell the difference. We were acting, but we had really given a lot of ourselves over to this.”
Fishback’s performance in Judas is a supporting one: she doesn’t appear in every scene. Still, it looms large, reverberating long after the credits roll. The praise she has received for the role, which follows acclaimed roles on HBO’s Show Me a Hero and The Deuce, makes plain that this is only the beginning of her ascent. It marks not only the fulcrum of her career, but also a turning point in her real life too; so much of Johnson’s spirit has fueled Fishback’s own personal evolution. “I became a woman playing this role,” she says. “Where I felt like I didn’t understand before, I don’t feel like that anymore.”
Hair: Monaé Everett for Curls; Makeup: Billie Gene; Manicure: Aja Walton for Essie.