Judas & The Black Messiah’s Dominique Fishback Is Ready To Show You A Hero

Dominique Fishback is a heroine with a thousand faces. Who will we meet next?

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In his seminal book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell argued that all  mythical idols —  be it a god, a Hollywood celebrity, or Katniss Everdeen — share a common narrative arc, regardless of time, place, or culture: Hero goes on an adventure, claims victory over a difficult adversary, and comes home transformed by the experience. The Sarah Lawrence professor may not have had Dominique Fishback in mind when he wrote all of this back in 1949, but she certainly thought about his words while growing up in East New York, Brooklyn. Why not become the multifaceted heroine of your own life? His concept became her mantra: “[A] heroine with a thousand faces.”  
“I always knew that there were so many layers to me, not just as a person, but as an artist,” Fishback told Refinery29 over Zoom in January. “I’m from the ‘hood’ but I swear there’s a little Jessica Day from New Girl in me and some Lucille Ball. There’s some Lauryn Hill and some Allen Iverson. Some Meryl [Streep] and some Eve. I’m trying to find my inner Beyoncé and Jhene Aiko, and let them come out in my thirties. I really wanted to understand the dualities that live inside me as they live inside all of us.”
At 29, Fishback — who was Prom Queen, captain of the basketball team, and class valedictorian in high school — has given each of her layers the room to express itself. She’s an actress and a spoken word poet, an aspiring novelist and a musician. She’s playful and soulful, serious and whimsical, romantic and down-to-Earth. She believes in hard work but also follows the wisdom of the stars. 2021 is Fishback’s “Divine Feminine Year:” “I have vision boards all over my apartment, of exploration, of self, of travel, and of love. I'm really trying to manifest that part.” A self-proclaimed romantic, she’s waiting for the Quincy to her Monica to come dribbling up the driveway and into her heart. (Gina Prince Bythewood’s Love & Basketball is a longtime favorite of hers.) 
Her work as an actress, too, has been all about range: Teenager Billie Rowan on David Simon’s HBO miniseries Show Me A Hero; sweet and inquisitive sex worker Darlene in The Deuce; vengeful Angel La Mere in Night Comes On; a young Gloria Carter in Jay-Z’s “Smile” video; and most recently, the precocious rapper Robin in Netflix’s Project Power. (That’s five different faces.) Subverted, the one-woman play Fishback wrote and starred in for her thesis project at Pace University, alone contains 22 different characters. (We’re at 27 now) And she’ll reveal yet another one this week as Black Panther activist Deborah Johnson in Shaka King’s upcoming film, Judas and the Black Messiah, which simultaneously hits theaters and HBO Max on February 12. (28!)
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Set in Chicago in the late 1960s, Judas and the Black Messiah tracks the rise and fall of Fred Hampton (played by Daniel Kaluuya), chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, who was killed during a raid by the FBI and the Chicago police on the word of an informant, William O’Neil (LaKeith Stanfield). As Hampton’s pregnant fiancée and fellow Panther, Deborah is neither the titular Judas (that would be O’Neil) nor the Black Messiah he betrays (Hampton himself), but in many ways, she’s the hero of the movie, a woman supremely talented into her own right, who, as a mother and wife, continuously sacrifices herself so that those she loves — a man, a movement — can realize their potential. And as the tragedy often goes, she in return, gets nothing, much less recognition.
King wrote the role with Fishback in mind. “I first saw Dominique in Show Me A Hero, and she embodied her role so thoroughly I assumed she was a non-actor,” he told Refinery29 over email, describing the qualities that made her stand out “Later, I realized that her craft is so strong it remains invisible. All you see is the character.” 

“Dominique has this depth and soul that she gives to her characters,” Jordana Spiro, who directed Fishback in her film debut in 2018’s Night Comes On, told Refinery29. “You just want to know what she's thinking.”
Before filming, Fishback came to King with two notes for her character: 1) If the film wanted to emphasize Deborah’s passion for writing, then she should have a notebook to constantly scribble in. 2) Her character shouldn’t just talk about poetry. She should read her work aloud. His response? Fishback should write some things for her to say.
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Their collaboration gave way to one of the movie’s most moving scenes, in which Fred asks Deborah if she regrets having his baby given the danger surrounding them. In response, she reads him a poem that’s quoted in the film’s trailer: “We nurture, we feed, and we lobby, perhaps we’re here for more than just war, with these bodies. We scream, and we shout, and we live by this anthem. But is power to the people really worth that ransom?”
As a future mother, she’s anxious that her partner might die before their baby is born; she’s ashamed she has to retreat from the fight to care for the life inside her; she’s fearful to bring a Black child into a world of violence and pain. But, she concludes, maybe living fully and well is the most radical act of all.
At times, the actor and the character became indistinguishable.“Playing [Deborah], I learned how to be the woman that I want to be,” Fishback said. “I learned to love unconditionally.” 
During the scene showing Fred Hampton’s notoriously gruesome death, it’s Deborah that carries the scene, broadcasting her emotional injuries to tell a story of physical violence. Rather than linger on the physical destruction, we see only her reaction, devastated but determined as she steels herself for what’s to come. 
“It reminds me of the moms today who have to go on podiums and talk about losing their children,” she continued. “They're standing up in their power, and they're saying, We have to be strong. This is why we're doing this. And there's not a tear in their eyes.”
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Shooting that scene was rough on Fishback. “The night before, I couldn't sleep and my stomach was in knots and my heart was racing so fast. I couldn’t understand what was going on,” she said. “And then I realized, oh, my body can't differentiate between embodying characters and what's actually real. I had to mourn the loss of this love.”
“Because we were making a movie about real people, I wanted as much of that lived- in reality from my cast-members as possible,” said King. “Deborah Johnson is the heart and soul of the movie. It's through her eyes that we witness Fred's power and it's through her eyes that we ultimately mourn his loss. That loss needed to feel palpable. I knew that Dominique could place us in those those emotional spaces.”
Even more stressful than nailing the scene was the pressure to honor a story about a movement that has often been approached with a mixture of awe and terror by a predominantly white media. For Fishback herself, the fight to get things right is personal: her cousin was the late Erica Garner (the daughter of Eric Garner, who was killed by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo in 2014), who died of a heart attack in 2017. Eric Garner’s story was poorly handled by the press, who constantly focused on the reason for his arrest in pursuit of a grand gesture of objectivity. That, combined with a grand jury’s decision not to indict Pantaleo (who was fired from the NYPD five years later, in 2019), caused irreparable damage to his family and community, forced to grieve multiple deaths while fighting ongoing bureaucratic red tape. 
“How are we going to speak about [the Black Panthers] and about this time and about the story in a way that doesn't do more harm than it does good?”
To go to the source, King, co-writer Will Benson, Kaluuya, and Fishback went to Chicago to meet with the woman herself — Akua Njeri, formerly known as Deborah Johnson — as well as her son, Fred Hampton Jr., the current Chairman of the Black Panthers. Testing the waters, Njeri and Hampton asked the actors why they took on this project.
Fishback responded that she had only first learned about the Black Panthers in college, when she attended Pace University, where she was oftentimes the only Black person in class. “One boy in my sociology class said, ‘If African American men in low income communities dressed normally, they wouldn’t be stopped by the police.’ I was so mad, I started debating with him, and I looked around — nobody could advocate with me because nobody came from where I came from. I told myself, Instead of getting mad, why don’t you use this opportunity for your thesis and write a one-woman show about the destruction of Black identity in America?For an hour and 20 minutes, this predominantly white university has to sit in your truth.”
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Fishback has continued to speak that truth —  this time in Hollywood, where she’s carved out boundaries for herself in overwhelmingly white spaces. After the repeated styling required for her 1980s look on 2015’s Show Me A Hero damaged her hair, she added a clause to her contract specifying that no heat could be applied to her hair going forward. During her breakout turn as Darlene on HBO’s The Deuce, she realized that she was more nervous about showing her natural hair than she was with the physical nudity required by the show’s premise tracking the beginning of the porn industry in 1970s New York. 
“I was so insecure about my natural hair and my afro, and I was afraid to show it,” she said. “It was only when I was able to step out and show my hair that I knew that I was coming to terms with loving myself.”
Her resume reflects someone who is deeply intentional about the roles she takes on, and what she wants to say to those who are watching. “If I shy away from the truth of who I am and the truth of my story, then I'm not helping people,” she said. “With Judas and the Black Messiah I hope that the youth can look and say, ‘Oh, we always had heroes and we were always worthy.’”

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