Dominique Fishback Interview on Judas and the Black Messiah
On Our Radar: It's Time to Give Dominique Fishback Your Full Attention
Image Source: Getty / Cindy Ord
With roles in Project Power and Judas and the Black Messiah, Dominique Fishback is finally getting the attention she deserves. While the 29-year-old has been professionally acting since 2013 — and was commended for her standout performance during her time as Darlene on HBO's The Deuce — she will absolutely blow you away as Deborah Johnson in Judas and the Black Messiah. The film, which is inspired by the real-life betrayal and assassination of Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton, follows William O'Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) as he infiltrates the Black Panthers to give the FBI information in order to avoid a prison sentence. In the process, William rises through the ranks of the organization and becomes close with the Chairman (Daniel Kaluuya) and his fiancée, Deborah.
While Judas and the Black Messiah is where Fishback's story has taken her, to understand her career as an actor, we need to go back to the beginning. "I knew I wanted to be an actor when I was 8 years old," Fishback told me with a grin via Zoom. All it took was a youth musical theater group called TADA! coming to her school, and she was hooked. Although she auditioned for the group three times, she never got in. "I was telling my mom about it and she said, 'You should really be an actor. I think you could really do it. You're so dramatic.' I also started watching I Love Lucy around that time, saying, 'I can do that. I want to have a show like Lucy.'" And here's hoping that one day she gets her show a la I Love Lucy, as she is just as ready to do comedy as she is to do drama — much like her acting inspiration, Meryl Streep.
Fishback knows that some consider it an acting cliché to list Streep as an inspiration. She readily admitted to me that, "Everybody probably says Meryl Streep, right? But I just feel like she always transforms in everything she does. She becomes a completely different person." And she's not wrong. Whether Streep is singing ABBA in overalls in Mamma Mia! or making audiences sob over Sophie's Choice, it's hard not to get lost in the moment.
"I want to focus on the craft. Because I know when I get the opportunity, I want to always be able to deliver."
Thinking about Streep and her career led Fishback to share an anecdote about her own career beginnings. "You know how Facebook does the memories from years ago? It actually was a post today where I was so concerned about getting an agent and all of those things," she explained. "And now I don't want to focus on that. I want to focus on the craft. Because I know when I get the opportunity, I want to always be able to deliver." That's when she added that no matter how you feel about a Streep movie, "you can't say she can't act" and "you'll never be able to say that." How she feels about Streep is exactly what she wants audiences to take away from her performances. Although she's still in the early days of her career, Fishback is already a natural. Even when taking on supporting roles, she is a standout.
Part of what makes her a standout is that she's not afraid to let others know her thoughts. When it came to meeting with director Shaka King for the role of Deborah Johnson in Judas and the Black Messiah, she was nervous until they had a conversation. "He said he wrote the role for me and [to] let him know my thoughts," she shared. "When I gave him my thoughts, I said, 'I have two, but I don't want to overstep.' And he replied, 'You'll be playing her. You can't overstep. Give me your notes.'"
Image Source: Getty / Cindy Ord
It was that collaborative nature on set that led to one of the most powerful moments in the film; Deborah reading a poem she wrote for Fred. "Something that I said was, 'One of the first things she says is, do you like poetry? And if we don't hear a poem, I think we miss an opportunity.' And he said, 'You're absolutely right. Do you want to take a shot at that poem?'," she continued. Yes, the poem you hear her speak in the film is something Fishback wrote herself. "Writing a poem from her experience and from her point of view, really allowed me to have ownership over her and advocating for her and her story."
Fishback has already noticed discussion about the poem online and it's a moment that she wants audiences, particularly Black women, to take away from the film. "I want Black women to recognize the power that we have to advocate for ourselves," she revealed. "I feel like a lot of Black women are saying on Twitter that they feel seen and heard from that poem, but the poem and that scene wouldn't have happened, if I didn't say, 'Hey, Shaka, I don't want to overstep, but let me know if you want to hear my thoughts.'"
"Writing a poem from her experience and from her point of view, really allowed me to have ownership over her and advocating for her and her story."
Because King was open to hearing her thoughts, she'd get together with the other women on the film, including Dominique Thorne and Judy Harmon, to see if he was on the same page they were. "Shaka left himself really open to receive, and I wouldn't have known that if I hadn't been like, 'I feel I have something to say. I feel I bring value.' And he knew it too because I got to tap into a part of the poem that he just probably wouldn't have thought of, as a woman."
The poem also served as the catalyst to Fishback's characterization of Deborah, leading to her carrying around the green journal that you see on screen during the entirety of filming. "I really allowed myself to journal and put songs to each scene — a lot of Nina Simone and Langston Hughes poetry — then make reflections on those lyrics and those words. Really building up the world emotionally inside," Fishback divulged with a smile. "That was really important. A lot of heart and soul went into the development of this character, opening myself up to be moved by the spirit and to be a vessel for the type of love that she shared with Chairman Fred."
Image Source: Getty / Cindy Ord
In case you were wondering, the chemistry Kaluuya and Fishback share o nscreen as their characters came naturally. It was also important to her that even though Judas and the Black Messiah isn't a romance, the story between Deborah and Chairman Fred was still portrayed as such. "When I think about African-American women in this particular genre, a lot of times we have to prove ourselves in love. We're only committed to after we stand by them through the biggest trials of their lives or we get pregnant and that's when we're committed," she commented as we discussed the romance genre. "But we'll watch movies like The Notebook and Noah sees Allie, he's ready to hang from a Ferris wheel just to get a date. We don't really get that, and I just wanted to make sure that we knew that he loved her for her mind beyond the physical, that she didn't have to do anything to be worthy of love. That was really important to me and subsequently today."
While she was nervous about being a vessel for the love between Chairman Fred and Deborah, she was also anxious about meeting the real-life Mother Akua (née Deborah Johnson). "It was intimidating because we all had to sit around a table for over seven hours and the first thing that Chairman Fred [Hampton] Jr. says is, 'I want to go around the table and I want to hear why every single one of you want to do this film,'" she shared. Surrounded by the likes of Kaluuya and Stanfield, she let the room know that she was extremely nervous when it was her time to speak. Eventually, she and Kaluuya had a moment alone with Mother Akua, who had her own questions for the pair. "I had said something and she was like, 'Well, what if my spirit don't mess with your spirit?" And so I replied, 'Yikes. Shouldn't have said that word,'" Fishback added with a laugh.
"But we'll watch movies like The Notebook and Noah sees Allie, he's ready to hang from a Ferris wheel just to get a date. We don't really get that and I just wanted to make sure that we knew that he loved her for her mind beyond the physical, that she didn't have to do anything to be worthy of love. That was really important to me and subsequently today."
Even though she was intimidated, she didn't let the awe of the real person detract from her characterization. "I explained to her that as an actor that went to school for acting, I learned about the craft. So I think about how the person or the character is different from the beginning of the movie to the end of the movie, whether there's subtext behind the scenes," she revealed. "I know about developing a character in that way, but I also believe that it becomes a time where you just play and let go everything on set and leave yourself open for energy and spirit to run through you. And at the end, I gave her a hug and I said, 'I hope you know my heart.' And she says, 'I do. I just had to give you a bit of a hard time.'" It was then that Fishback knew they shared a bond. Even more so when Mother Akua came up to Fishback after her second scene on set and said, "You did that motherf*cking scene. That was Deborah Johnson up there."
When it came to Fishback's version, Mother Akua was only adamant about a few things. "I knew that she didn't cry when Chairman Fred was assassinated. The cops were carrying the body out and chanting and she's singing and laughing that Chairman Fred was dead and she didn't cry," she said. In the film, the camera holds its focus on Fishback as the cops carry out their task. You can see every emotion on her face in the absence of tears. "That was really all that she really cared about," she continued. With such a heavy scene, that had me sobbing by that point in the film, I couldn't help but wonder how she kept herself from completely falling apart in the moment. "I mean the day that I had to shoot that scene was really hard," she said. "It actually ended up falling on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Chairman Fred and so the energy in the room was palpable. You could feel it. It was heavy."
"Walking into that replica apartment was just my heart kept pounding so hard and I didn't really understand what was happening to me, even the night before," she continued. "I just kept having this overwhelming feeling that something bad was going to happen. And I had to keep telling myself, 'Nothing's going to happen to Daniel.' But I realized that this love was big and it was taken from them. And I prayed to be invested for that love. And because that love was taken from them, it subsequently had to be taken from me and Daniel in that way as well." Because of the chemistry the pair had as Deborah and Chairman Fred, Fishback found herself trailing after Kaluuya the day of their big scene because she needed to make sure he was going to be OK.
"Because, even though we have so many things to cry about, we don't walk around the streets just crying. We hold it. We don't want people to see us cry a lot of the time. And so I just really held it for dear life."
As for why she didn't cry, even Fishback is still surprised. "I don't know how I didn't cry," she said incredulously. "I fought it with everything in me and I can't say why it happened or why it didn't happen. I think I just remember Mama Akua, and if there's any way that I can honor her when she said that she didn't cry, then suck it in," she told me. The idea of why someone does or does not cry reminded Fishback of her time at Pace University, where in 2013 she got a degree in theater. "I remember learning in school that the most interesting aspect of watching a film is when people fight the tears, right? Because, even though we have so many things to cry about, we don't walk around the streets just crying. We hold it. We don't want people to see us cry a lot of the time. And so I just really held it for dear life."
Part of what drew her to the film was her ability to help clear up misconceptions about Fred Hampton and the view people have of the Black Panther Party. "It's definitely an honor," she mentioned when asked how she felt about clearing up said misconceptions. "I learned about the Black Panther Party when I was in the Black Student Union in school. But a lot of times, my convictions always lent to the inequality that Black people faced. Me just growing up in East New York, Brooklyn, and the cops would kind of bother my family. The kind of power abuse where it just made it hard to even look at them," she added.
"And a lot of times, I was the only Black person in my class," she continued. "I was at Pace University, in a sociology class, and this white boy said, 'If African-American males in low-income communities dressed 'normally,' they wouldn't be stopped by the cops.' I was livid. I'm debating with him and I'm stumbling over my words, then I look around, and nobody can advocate with me because nobody's from where I'm from." It was this experience that spurred her to write Subverted, her 2014 one-woman show where she played 22 characters. "I'm going to show them about the destruction of Black identity in America. And for an hour and 20 minutes, this predominantly white university is going to have to sit in my shoes and the truth of Black and Brown people come from places mine. I knew that I had come to this university to learn about people who didn't grow up like me and I'm sure other people did too, and I would be doing a disservice to them and to my people and to myself if I don't share that story in a raw and truthful way," she stated.
When I brought up the idea that no one has more audacity than a white male in a sociology or psychology class, she responded, "It was like he was really debating with me, and I remember getting so mad. I said, 'Dominique, you can't get mad. He just doesn't know. You just have to use your gifts and your talents to shed light on something.'" When she won homecoming queen at Pace, she felt like it was her duty to act as a liaison and just give people the facts of the matter without sugarcoating things. That's how she felt about the year of learning people seemed to go through with 2020.
"I remember getting so mad. I said, 'Dominique, you can't get mad. He just doesn't know. You just have to use your gifts and your talents to shed light on something.'"
"What happened last year is that we all started learning that what we might've thought we knew for so long might not be the truth. And that's OK. It's OK to admit that I believed this and I was wrong," she replied. "Why are we so scared to say that we were wrong? I think with social media being what it is, we don't really get a chance to grow, be our authentic selves, because we're so afraid of saying the wrong thing so many times, for fear that it will be stamped on us and we will never live it down. But if we constantly keep saying, 'I have all these convictions,' maybe in the next year or two, I'll be like, 'Actually, I changed my mind about that one line.' It's OK. We're learning. Nobody knows what we're doing here. We just came here to experience and then we're gone."
With Judas and the Black Messiah released to the world, Fishback is now looking toward some of the experiences she's most excited about, including seeing something happen with Subverted. And, of course, she's also excited for her upcoming 30th birthday. "I'm going to put out a little music video thing for it. My birthday is March 22nd, so I'll put it on my Instagram," she said with a large grin. As for what's next for Fishback, only time will tell, although she does have a dream role in mind. "I want to be in Children of Blood and Bone [by Tomi Adeyemi]. It's a book trilogy. I don't think the third ones out yet, but they're making it a movie," she responded, the excitement written on her face. "It's a dream role because it deals with magic and beauty in African cultures. So it's kind of like a Harry Potter or The Hunger Games, but specifically for Black power and Black magic." It's currently in development by Lucasfilm, so you know it's going to be good. I can't wait to see what the world holds for Fishback, whether it be writing or acting. Either way, she's one that is on our radar and should be on yours as well.
Catch Fishback in Judas and the Black Messiah, which is out on HBO Max and in theaters now.