In Channing Godfrey Peoples’ affecting first feature, Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie) is a single mother and former beauty queen, once crowned Miss Juneteenth, who wants her teenager daughter, Kai (Alexis Chikaeze), to follow in her footsteps. It’s a film steeped in black Texan culture, starting with its namesake holiday, which marked the day — June 19, 1865 — that slaves in Texas learned they were free, as ordered by the Emancipation Proclamation more than two years earlier. And Peoples, a native of Fort Worth, imbues the film with a Texan authenticity, undoubtedly its greatest strength.
“I was literally writing a film about the places and spaces that I grew up around,” Peoples, who studied film at the University of Southern California, told IndieWire. “Miss Juneteenth” was filmed on the southside of Fort Worth, a Black community that’s being actively gentrified. “I’ve been out of Texas, but it’s a place and a community that I keep coming back to. It has this feeling of timelessness, because people there are trying to hold onto a way of life,” the filmmaker said. “But I wanted everything to feel lived-in, like they’ve finally passed their expiration dates.”
Growing up in Fort Worth, Peoples was fond of the celebration of Juneteenth. One tradition that is woven into the true-life fabric of the film is the annual Miss Juneteenth pageant, an empowering event the filmmaker recalls attending every year.
“It was important that I try to keep the experience as authentic as possible, and having very vivid memories as a kid, looking up at those young, Black women on that stage, feeling so affirmed because they looked confident, excited and hopeful, was very helpful in recreating the experience,” she said. “It was a moment for me that was very special, and one that had to be realistically worked into the story.”
For star Nicole Beharie, it was that same authenticity that drew her to the project, playing a proud woman taking on the burden of representing history and generations of Black women, as she makes strides towards her own self-realization.
“Having spoken with Channing, I realized that I knew of this community, and then I discovered that it was even more specific for her, and that she had a very intimate relationship with the material which showed through her very distinct vision,” Beharie said. Additionally, she was intrigued by the prospect of working with a Black female writer and director for the very first time in her career. And Peoples’ script offered her an atypically complex and nuanced role to demonstrate her range.
To prepare, the Brooklyn-based Beharie flew down to Texas and inserted herself directly into the community, where she worked in a bar and meshed with the locals, many of whom would become her fellow cast members.
It’s an immersive process that speaks to the pursuit of authenticity which is evident in the performances, as well as the capturing of the place, the time, the people, the language, and, most importantly, the accent, which Beharie picked up perfectly.
It’s a pursuit that also required an entirely stripped down, makeup-free performance by the actress, which initially discomforted her. But she overcame her anxieties, concluding that this specific aspect of the character’s look was one of the clearest visual indicators of her circumstance.
“I thought, wow, no concealer, no lipstick, I’ve been crying, no mascara, no nothing, which made me feel very naked and vulnerable,” Beharie said. “However, I realize now that by the time I got to the end of it, I thought, oh, this woman has had no time to do any of those things, because of what her life is like. That’s just the very practical nature of it. I also feel a sense of freedom having done it.”
Peoples cast Beharie primarily based on the strength of her previous work, and the importance of finding an actress who could bring a necessary nuance and verisimilitude to the complex role of a working class single mother reconciling with her own life disappointments, which are rooted in dreams deferred. And Beharie, who naturally exudes strength and dignity, was perfect for the role.
“Nicole is such a brilliant actor, and most important for me was someone who could bring this idea of the love between a mother and daughter, and the joy that this brings,” said Peoples.
That bond between parent and child is the film’s motor, and provides many of its most profound moments. Turquoise and Kai’s is an almost sisterly relationship, and yet it’s very clear who is who, and boundaries aren’t crossed.
“I was able understand that connection explicitly, only because I recently become a mother myself, and I used my own personal experiences, in reevaluating the way I was approaching the script after that,” said Peoples. “I needed someone who could bring all of these qualities, and I knew that Nicole had the ability to do just that.”
A rare feature film written and directed by a Black woman, telling a Black woman’s story, “Miss Juneteenth” breaks stereotypes typically associated with Black women, and instead presents Black women who are attempting to liberate themselves and move towards a greater self-awareness. It’s a theme that Maya Angelou’s lyrical poem, “Phenomenal Woman,” embodies, and which Peoples incorporates into the story. Originally written as a celebration of the beauty and self-confidence of women, it has since become something of an anthem for specifically Black women.
“Part of ‘Phenomenal Woman’ being in the film is all about authenticity, because at every Miss Juneteenth Pageant, one of the contestants is going deliver the poem,” Peoples said. “I also am a young, Black woman in America, so I grew up hearing it, and it’s so much a part of my journey and epitomizes who Turquoise is. She’s so much of me, but also the women in my life, like my mother, grandmother, who were all passionate, and told me that I was strong, dignified, and graceful. And I think the poem just defines who the character is, and it so it was about being authentically me.”
“Miss Juneteenth” is at once familiar, as a story about mothers and daughters, but it also feels fresh, thanks to Peoples’ very personal touch. It’s an impressive directorial debut, and also a terrific showcase for Beharie.
“I just hope that people can find, especially in these times, some optimism in this young black woman named Turquoise, who had these huge dreams that were rerouted,” Peoples said. “Life didn’t turn out as she wanted, but she’s determined to still exist. Hopefully, this will speak to some people.”
“Miss Juneteenth” premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and is now available on most VOD platforms.