Longtime Local Lands Role  In 'Judas and the Black Messiah'

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 At a time when civil rights have again become a prominent issue in society and as we celebrate Black History Month, a new film, “Judas and the Black Messiah” serves to tell the story of such issues surrounding a historic event and figure in Illinois. The highly anticipated film is set to hit theaters and HBO Max on Friday, February 12 and Nicholas Velez, a longtime Rockaway local with a supporting role in the film, is about to make personal history with his first big screen debut.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” tells the story of the rise of charismatic 1960s civil rights leader, Fred Hampton, the Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, and how FBI informant Bill O’Neal, who appears to bond with Hampton, ultimately betrays him. The film, a Warner Bros. production directed by Shaka King, stars Daniel Kaluuya as Hampton and Lakeith Stanford as O’Neal, but locals may recognize longtime Rockaway resident Nicholas Velez in his supporting role as Jose "Cha Cha" Jimenez.

For Velez, who grew up in Arverne and Far Rockaway and attended St. Camillus Catholic Academy, acting runs in the family. His father, Community Board 14 member, Jose Velez, has made several appearances on the stage of the Rockaway Theatre Company. Nicholas Velez had gone to Penn State to study economics and enter the business world, but after graduating, he found himself wanting to try something different—acting. “I always went to watch my dad at the community theater and his sister, my aunt, is an actress that has been in a good number of tv shows and films, and I felt like I had the support behind me, so it was something I knew I could give a try,” he said.

Velez joined a program at The Acting Studio in Manhattan to study the art and as his talent grew, so did his opportunities. After acquiring a manager and agent in New York, he landed some small television roles in "Blue Bloods," "Bull," and "The Deuce."

In September 2019, his manager came across another opportunity that required Velez to make a self-tape with audition material for a project that had a coded name at the time. Velez recorded the tape and within a few weeks he got a call for an in-person audition with the casting director in November 2019. He got the part. Next thing he knew, Velez was flown out to Cleveland to shoot the film for a few weeks at the end of 2019.

Velez had landed the role of Jose "Cha Cha" Jimenez. As Velez explains, “Cha Cha was the leader of the Young Lords. They were akin to the Black Panthers, except they were all Latino and fighting for their people. Fred Hampton took notice and wanted them to join forces with him and a couple of other groups to form the Rainbow Coalition. I play the Young Lords leaders.”

During the filming, Velez was able to meet the real-life Cha Cha, an encounter that he wasn’t expecting. “It was a surprise. He was there one of the days we were shooting. The director told me the real Cha Cha was there and I tried to play it off with a smile, but I got so anxious as soon as I heard that,” Velez recalled. “I got to meet him, and it was kind of surreal, but we had a really nice conversation and I got over my anxiousness. He’s a great guy.”

Velez was able to draw inspiration from the real man he was playing two days before Velez filmed his major scene. “There’s this pivotal moment in the movie where I give a big speech and it’s centered around police brutality and something that happens to one of the members of my party. I knew it was my big moment to shine, so I had been preparing for it for a while,” he said.

Velez hopes that his execution of that speech on the big screen, in a film that already has award-worthy buzz, will land him more roles. “It’s definitely the biggest thing I’ve done so far and hopefully it leads to more opportunities for me in my career,” Velez said.

Velez is so committed to acting that in January 2020, he made the move from New York to Los Angeles. However, he hasn’t forgotten about his roots. Over the holidays, Velez returned to New York to visit his family and even gave them a sneak preview of “Judas and the Black Messiah” in full. “I got an advanced screener and I got to watch it with mom and dad three weeks ago,” Velez said. “I was excited to watch it with my parents because I have a lot of support from them. They’ve been a huge part of my success and are always rooting for me to do well, so it was a huge moment to watch it for the first time with them. My dad was really happy to see it, but the movie left my mom stunned. It is really tragic at the end and it really moved her and it made me proud to be a part of the movie even more. I’m looking forward to more people seeing it,” he said.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” drops on home screens through HBO Max and in theaters, where theaters are open, on Friday, February 12. As most theaters remain closed in New York and Los Angeles due to coronavirus, Velez says most will see it on HBO Max, including himself. He plans to have a watch party with friends in Los Angeles on Friday. “I’m really excited to see what people think,” Velez said.

 By Katie McFadden

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