When actor Nicholas Velez (TV’s The Deuce) first auditioned for a small role in Judas and the Black Messiah, a dramatic biopic on Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and FBI informant Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), he had no idea for what movie or character he was reading.
“When I got the sides, it was under a code name,” Velez told Remezcla during a recent interview. “I wasn’t sure what the role was. It seemed like they were trying to keep it secret. When I got a call back and found out that Daniel and LaKeith were attached to it, I thought, ‘Whoa, this is huge!’”
What was so huge about it was that Velez was cast to portray José Cha Cha Jiménez, the founder of the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican civil and human rights organization formed in the streets of Chicago in 1968. Together with Hampton and William Fesperman of the Young Patriots, Jiménez helped start the Rainbow Coalition, a multicultural movement led by different activist organizations with common objectives like ending police brutality, substandard housing and poverty.
Interested in brushing up on Jiménez’s work and the impact he had on the Latino community during that time, Velez, who is Puerto Rican-Italian, started reading and watching everything he could get his hands on about the Young Lords.
“I had a good amount of prep time,” Velez said. “I didn’t feel rushed into it.”
During production, Velez got to meet Jiménez, who was hired as a consultant on the film. He admits that he was a bit nervous since he wasn’t expecting to meet the man he would be portraying.
“We had a lengthy conversation,” Velez said. “It was such an honor to meet him. I really felt the weight of the story when I was on set.”
For Velez, capturing Jiménez’s charisma was one of the most important things to him. He said there wasn’t much video of Jiménez during the time of the Rainbow Coalition, so he learned a lot about him from photographs he studied.
“You could tell he was an intense guy, but there was also a playfulness to him,” he said. “He had these amazing leadership qualities and was charming. I really felt a responsibility to do him justice.”
Velez hopes when people see the film, they understand that the Black Panthers weren’t only an organization focused on improving Black lives, they wanted to liberate all oppressed people.
“That’s why they joined forces with the Young Lords,” Velez said. “They saw the commonality in what they were fighting for. I’m excited that people who see the film will learn more about that aspect.”
Judas and the Black Messiah premieres at theaters and on HBO Max Feb. 12.