Writer-director Channing Godfrey Peoples’ feature directorial debut, “Miss Juneteenth,” follows a former beauty queen, working-class, African American, single mother named Turquoise (Nicole Beharie), who wants nothing more than for her daughter to also wear the crown. Offering an atypical perspective of a beauty pageant, the film unfolds against the background of the Miss Juneteenth procession, named after the Juneteenth holiday, which commemorates when the last enslaved people in the United States were emancipated in 1865.
For many young Black women, the Miss Juneteenth pageant is their version of the more recognized Miss America. And for “Miss Juneteenth,” which foregrounds the story of a woman rarely given this much screen consideration, Beharie didn’t need to seek inspiration in prior films or performances. She simply had to focus her attention on the world around her and observe.
“I always think life is more interesting for inspiration, unless I literally shoplift or something like that,” Beharie said. “I feel like pulling from another film is like doing an imitation of an imitation in a way. I had the fortune of going down to Texas and being around some of the people and just watching carefully and attentively. And also the women around me, from when I was a child, to now in my 30s, seeing them work through their relationships, their many jobs, and all of their life struggles, and I stole little bits and pieces from these people that I’ve loved, and even some I didn’t care for; at least for the mask of the character.”
Additionally, Peoples’ script had already laid a solid foundation for the actress to build on, with respect to the character’s interior life. “Channing had a very specific vision for who these characters were,” Beharie said.
The reward gained from both her immersive process and the writing, is evident in the performances. “Miss Juneteenth” is at once familiar as a story about mothers and daughters, but it also feels fresh, thanks to Peoples’ personal touch. It’s a terrific showcase for Beharie, whose performance is authentic. There’s an almost unshakable confidence that manifests relatably on screen in the way that the Juilliard grad occupies space.
“I live with scripts of projects I sign up for, which means that I read it a bunch of times, make a bunch of notes, and then I do the standard analysis work, where you find the intention of a scene, or question why a scene is in the film at all, and what’s its purpose,” Beharie said about her process. “I also try to read it from different points of view, and look for what I’m not catching in a specific line or delivery, or maybe what the writer’s intention was, because sometimes we can be very stuck in our own perspective.”
What she wasn’t immediately ready for was that she would be required to deliver an entirely stripped down, makeup-free performance, 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 circumstances.
“I will say this, initially I still kind of thought that an ex-pageant winner was going to be a little glam,” she said. “A little Texas hair, some weave, nails done, lipstick, mascara, all of that. But you’re there and you look around, and you realize that, no, what you imagined is not the total reality.”
But it’s her dedication to her craft and pursuit of performances with verisimilitude that have helped rank Beharie among the most respected actresses of her generation, admired by both fans and industry colleagues. Although she’s very modest about any sort of acclamation of her talent, and, in fact, known primarily for dramatic roles, feels stifled.
“Based on what other people’s limitations are of who I am as a performer who is Black and a woman, I feel slightly limited, actually, in some of the characters that I’ve been able to play,” she said. “I feel like, if you play a character that’s from Texas and people buy it, then that’s all you are. If you play a mom and people buy it, then that’s all you are. So it’s a question of how to break out of the box. I’m growing still, and I’m not done yet, and I have a lot of things that I want to show. So that’s kind of where I am. If people do feel a certain way about my work, it would be great if it translated into access to more interesting material.”
She feels similarly about awards. Her “Miss Juneteenth” performance earned her a win over Frances McDormand in the Best Actress category at the 2021 Gotham Awards, which Beharie called “a major shock”; she also picked up a 2021 Film Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Female Lead; and she’s received recognition from a handful of film critic associations and organizations.
While most certainly appreciated, the acknowledgement she’s earned throughout her career, starting with her feature debut, 2008’s critically-acclaimed “American Violet” — in which she also played a working class single mother in an impoverished Texas town — hasn’t necessarily led to the most appealing, diverse job offers, nor made her path any less bumpy.
“Acting for sport is a bit strange to me, especially when, for such a long time, the people who have made up the voters who select who’s in first place, have been of one particular demographic,” she said. “I know that’s changing. But I’m flattered. We went down to Texas and shot this movie for little money, as a labor of love kind of thing. So I didn’t take the role thinking there’ll be awards buzz around it. But I’m not going to look a gift horse in the mouth. If an award can help me continue to do what I love, then that’s it. I’m sure in the next few years we’re going to be inundated with all kinds of amazing art because of what we’ve all gone through and learned over the last year; hopefully some really dangerous stuff that I could be a part of.”
In addition to banking upcoming roles in HBO’s remake of Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 Swedish miniseries “Scenes From a Marriage,” and Amazon’s science fiction series “Solos,” Beharie is certainly not moping around, twiddling her thumbs, waiting to be offered the kind of meatier, more diverse roles that she strongly desires. Like some of her peers have done and continue to realize its necessity, she also hinted that she’s developing projects for herself.
“As Toni Morrison said, ‘If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it’,” the actress said. “So instead of worrying yourself about whether you are where you want to be in your career, who cares? People have other things going on. So figure it out. Create what you want to see, what you think is missing.”
“Miss Juneteenth” premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and was released via video on demand on June 19, 2020, coinciding with the 155th anniversary of the Juneteenth holiday.