Here, Fishback speaks to Glamour about being hand chosen for the role, her hopes for the film’s lasting impact, and, naturally, what she wants to wear to the Oscars. “This was an experience that changed my life,” she says. “It changed me as a person, as an artist, and as a woman.”
Glamour: How did you get cast in Judas and the Black Messiah?
Dominique Fishback: A few years ago I got an email that said, “Shaka King wants you to play Deborah Johnson, Fred Hampton’s fiancé, for a movie he’s making with Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Ryan Coogler, and Charles King.” I had to reread the email a couple of times. I was like, “Wait, are they saying the part is mine? Or that Shaka wants to meet me? It sounds like they’re saying it’s mine, but that can’t be, considering all of these people attached.”
I met with Shaka at a café in Brooklyn, and he was like, “The role is yours.” I asked him if he had to talk to somebody to confirm, because I didn’t want to get too excited. He laughed and said, “No, it’s yours.” I would have been excited just to audition for the part, so I was really moved and honored that he wanted to offer it to me.
What were your first thoughts when you read the script?
I wrote Shaka a whole long email about all of the things I loved and then I said, “I have thoughts, but I don’t want to overstep, so let me know if you want to hear them.” He said, “You’ll be playing her—you can’t overstep. Give me your notes.” So I gave him my notes, and that was the kickoff to how I became a part of the story. I would write Shaka three-page papers on my character and women in the Panthers, and he would always make time to spend with me to talk about these things.
What was one of your notes?
In the film Deborah asks Chairman Fred if he likes poetry. And then for the rest of the film, we didn’t hear a poem. The Panthers were very poetic people, and I thought we would miss an opportunity if we didn’t hear one. Shaka was like, “I think you’re right. Do you want to take a shot at that poem?” So I wrote the poem that Deborah reads in the movie. In my spare time I started writing a lot of poetry, specifically about love. This year I plan to put out a book of poetry. As artists, we’re here to help make people feel like they’re not alone.
Tell me more about the research you did to prepare for the role.
There were so many different chapters of the Panthers, and each chapter was orchestrated a bit differently. Elaine Brown’s A Taste of Power gave me a general idea of a woman’s perspective in the Panther party, but it wasn’t specific to the Chicago Panthers. To know more about Chairman Fred and the Chicago Panthers, I read The Assassination of Fred Hampton by Jeffrey Haas. I would randomly meet with Shaka at different cafes around Brooklyn and tell him what I was reading, and he’d tell me what he was reading. It gave us a shorthand, which I think was important while we were on set. When I had notes or ideas, I wasn’t afraid to share them. If I pushed something, he knew it was only because I was thinking in terms of the women and this story.