Amber Chardae Robinson Speaks about Her Role in “Judas and the Black Messiah”

Actress Amber Chardae Robinson is now proud to say that she’s been a part of a film that received the Oscar nomination for Best Picture. “Judas and the Black Messiah,” where Robinson plays Betty Coachman, a supporter of the Black Panther Party, tells the story of party chairman Fred Hampton and FBI informant William “Bill” O’Neal who went undercover to gather intelligence on the civil rights martyr. The role of Betty Coachman was a turning point in Robinson’s career, and she got to work with an amazing group of actors including Academy Award nominees Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield, and rising star Dominique Fishback. Fashion Reverie recently sat down with the actress to discuss the importance of this film, the history of the Black Panther Party, and how this project changed her life.

Fashion Reverie: How did you get cast in this film?

Amber Chardae Robinson: It’s a funny story. I was living my regular actor life in Los Angeles, and I got a phone call from my agent to do the table read for the parts they hadn’t cast. Ryan Coogler, Daniel Kaluuya, and LaKeith Stanfield were all going to be there. The casting director said there was no promise of a role, but I took it as an opportunity to deliver the material the best way I know how

 When I went in, I met Ryan Coogler, who sat directly across from me. After that, I did everything I was supposed to, some folks would say I went in and ‘dropped the mic.’ I thanked everyone when I left, and I didn’t hear anything for two weeks after that. In the meantime I just became obsessed with the history of the Black Panther Party.

FR: Were you aware of Fred Hampton and his story before you found out about “Judas and the Black Messiah?”

Amber Chardae Robinson: No, I had no idea who he was. After I did the table read, all this extra research I was doing on the Black Panthers was leisure, but some people would call it manifestation. I went to Florida on vacation, and I was speaking at Bethune Cookman University about “Always a Bridesmaid,” another movie I was in. Two weeks after that, I got a call from my agent saying there was a role in “Judas and the Black Messiah” for me. I hopped on a flight to Cleveland and lived there for three months shooting this film with these amazing people. It felt so divinely ordained. What are the odds you get cast from a table read?

FR: Do you know the producers came up with the name of the film, “Judas and the Black Messiah?”

Amber Chardae Robinson: For the longest we were shooting; we didn’t have a title for it. It was called “The Untitled Fred Hampton Project.” When the story of the film broke in the press, that was when I learned about the name of film. The entire time we were shooting the movie, we didn’t know what it was going to be called. It was like raising a child without a name, saying you’ll let them find themselves. The producers wanted to finish the project and feel what works.

FR: Talk to me about the preparation to play your character, Betty Coachman?

Amber Chardae Robinson: I engulfed myself in the culture of the women in the Black Panther Party. They played such a vital role in the movement. I listened to speeches from Angela Davis—who coincidentally was never a member of the Black Panther Party—and Kathleen Cleaver, just hearing the intelligence and gravitas they spoke with was very similar to who I am today.

I have an MFA in acting from Columbia University, and I did my undergrad at an HBCU, so I went from a predominantly Black environment to one with a lot less people who look like me. I had to constantly remind myself who I was and that I was worthy of being there.

Thinking about on my time in graduate school, there was a parallel for me. I tapped into my own strength of being a Black woman at a predominantly white institution. I had to learn to assert my intellect. I’m a Black girl from the South with a country accent. People don’t think Ivy League graduate when they see me. White people back then did not look at these women as intellectuals, they were seen as demonizing, rebels, or radicals. These women need their stories told. We need an Angela Davis and Kathleen Cleaver biopic next.

FR: What do you think you brought to the Betty Coachman character?

Amber Chardae Robinson: I brought myself and all of the things I possess as a Black woman in this time. I’m growing up in a time that’s very similar, but where racism isn’t as overt. I tapped into my real life and used those feelings as fuel for this character.

Growing up in the South and being Black, smart, and loud, and going off to do things like art weren’t supported. I brought strength, power, and knowing who I am to this role. I learned so much about myself doing this movie as well, and I’ve been fueled to chase after my purpose. Learning about Fred Hampton and the vision he had for us as a collective of Black people really changed me and has fueled me in my current process as an actor and person.

FR: Fred Hampton’s murder has been documented in Black Panther Party documentary films, but there’s never been a feature film about his life. His murder happened decades ago. Why do you think “Judas and the Black Messiah” needed to happen at this time?

Amber Chardae Robinson: So many people are uninformed or just don’t know about this history. I heard the name Fred Hampton before, but I didn’t know the history and issues surrounding his murder, the FBI’s involvement, or the role J. Edgar Hoover played. To this day, Fred Hampton is still held on this pedestal, and there’s a reason for that. This movie has given people the initiative to do their research and learn about the actual issues that are going on. The conditioning of this country has led us to believe things that aren’t true or accurate.

FR: Although the film takes places in the 1960s, many of the issues of race and civil rights are still relevant today. Do you think the story and issues of racial justice will appeal to current audiences? If so, why?

Amber Chardae Robinson: I hope this film educates. The reasons I tell stories is to liberate people through art. The people who don’t know anything about Fred Hampton, Bill O’Neal, the FBI, and J. Edgar Hoover will be educated from this film. One of the things that was really astounding for me about this film was someone in the FBI pushed for a bill to take J. Edgar Hoover’s name off the FBI building after he watched this film. The amount of black civil rights activists that died under J. Edgar Hoover’s watch was astonishing. Films like this cause us to reflect and make adjustments to our society. That’s why I do the work I do.

FR: Most people don’t realize the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover were involved in Fred Hampton’s murder. Do you think the film conveys the historical accuracies and horrors of the situation well?

Amber Chardae Robinson: The film does an excellent job of that. It really gives just insight and peaks into just the surface of what happened. I hope people will be motivated to go do more research about what the FBI did to the Black Panther Party and see what else really happened.

FR: Many people know very little about the Black Panther Party and don’t realize the party was established to uplift all people. How does this film help clear up some of the misinformation about the Black Panther Party?

Amber Chardae Robinson: It shows people Fred Hampton’s mission. The party was created to take care of Black people with clinics and free breakfast programs. We had to protect ourselves because they were killing us. It wasn’t about rebelling against white men. That narrative was constructed because people were scared Black people would want revenge for oppression, but Black people wanted to live and be taken care of after we helped build this country.

FR: How has working on “Judas and the Black Messiah” enriched your life?

Amber Chardae Robinson: For a long time, I had imposter syndrome. I kept telling myself get it together, and I forget that I am worthy and ready to be where I am. I spent the money and had the training to be at the point I’m at in my acting career. After working on this film, I have more confidence in my work. I don’t want to say this movie showed me my worth, but it allowed me to watch people who are where I want to be career wise, and I had intimate conversations with them, and built a familial relationship with them. Working on this film changed my outlook on this business and showed me how I’m going to grow in this field. After this experience, I feel like my opportunities are limitless, and I’m so excited about it.

FR: What did you take away from working with a cast of incredible actors including big names like Daniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, and Dominique Jackson?

Amber Chardae Robinson: I think I’ve gained another family. I learned so much being around these people, because they are so rooted in themselves. If they are ever second guessing themselves, I can’t see it. Their confidence and knowing who they are and what they bring to the table and knowing no one can get in the way of their journey was a privilege to witness. It helped me so much with myself. It helped me understand myself and made me feel more comfortable about what I do. Going on to the next set, I won’t be as nervous. “Judas and the Black Messiah” is the biggest set I’ve worked on. I’m grateful to have experience people who are strong in their foundation.

FR: What are some projects you have coming up this year?

Amber Chardae Robinson: Right now I’m in the process of taking a couple meetings and auditioning. We are still in a pandemic, but I’m using the time to write my own feature film. Writing has always been something I’ve done since I was a little girl. Being able to write a feature has been an interesting process. It’s kept me busy through such turbulent times, and it’s given me a foundation to come back to while the world has felt like its collapsing around us. I’m excited to share it with the world.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” is currently in theatres and streaming on HBO Max. The film was directed by Shaka King and is a contender at the 93rd Academy Awards for Best Picture.

—Kristopher Fraser

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