Judas and the Black Messiah is a film based on the true story of how Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton was betrayed by an undercover FBI informant, and eventually assassinated by the police. And while the film does focus on the events leading up to the political activist’s death, it is through his relationship with his fiancée, Deborah Johnson, who was close to giving birth to their son at the time of his killing, that we see another layer to his life. Played by Dominique Fishback, Deb carries a journal everywhere, filling it with poetry as she moves through life and witnesses Hampton’s work with the Black Panther Party. In reality, Fishback carries a journal too, also filled with poetry and musings on romance and life. For W’s annual Best Performances issue, the actress meditates on writing about the erasure of Black American identity, revisiting her past self, and telling stories of power and pain over and over again.
How long have you been writing poetry?
I’ve been writing poetry since I was about 12. For my role in Judas and the Black Messiah, I read the script, and one of the first things my character, Deb, says to her future husband, Fred Hampton, the head of the Black Panthers in Illinois in the ’60s, was, “Do you like poetry?” But then we don’t hear any poetry! I asked the director if we could add a poem. He said sure. So I wrote a poem, and now it’s in the movie. Not only am I getting to bring this character to life through my body and voice, but I get to do it through my own words! For every major scene in the movie between Deb and Fred, like the first kiss or the first time she sees him, I wrote a poem about it.
Were you a theatrical child?
Yes. When I was 6, I used to act like the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. I’d say, “I’m melting,” and sink to the floor in excruciating pain. My mom said, “You should try acting.” In college, I wrote a one-woman show called Subverted, in which I played 20 different characters based off of people from my life and some fiction. It’s about the destruction of Black identity in America.
Did you know a lot about Fred Hampton before you started working on the film?
Yeah. In college, I was in the Black Student Union, or BSU. That’s when I first heard about Fred. And for Subverted, I had been doing a lot of research about the Black Panther Party, about Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, and Malcolm X.
Did you find the violent events depicted in Judas and the Black Messiah shocking?
Not really. For me, like a lot of African-Americans, violent acts are ingrained. The death of Fred Hampton doesn’t wake me up in a new way, because I’ve already been sitting in that experience. Eric Garner was a part of my family, and Erica Garner, who became an activist because of her father, was my cousin. She passed away at 27 of a heart attack. It doesn’t shock me; it just gives me motivation to keep doing what I’m doing. I feel like the roles kind of find me. I was in The Hate U Give and I wasn’t looking for that, but that movie is about police brutality as well. When the director, Shaka King, came to me with this movie, I said, I guess this is where the universe wants me; this is where God wants me. We need to tell these stories again and again.
Who is your cinematic crush?
Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard. He was so beautiful. And he was a bodyguard. It would be nice to have a dreamboat to take care of me. I’m a romantic. When I was a teenager, I had a crush on Omarion from B2K. And when I was 12 years old, I was writing in my journals about loving Khleo Thomas, who played Zero in the movie Holes. I was like, if he knew me, he would love me.
Has anyone ever read your journals without your permission?
Oh, yes. But it was my fault because I used to bring them outside when I was a kid. The boys used to take them and run down the street with them. Lately, I’ve been rereading them and scanning them, and writing reflections on me as a kid, because I think knowing yourself is actually getting back to that kid. I write in my journals as the characters I play, and it’s a way of getting back to me.