“I just want something for myself.”
Those words are expressed by Turquoise Jones in Channing Godfrey Peoples’ phenomenal debut – “Miss Juneteenth” (2020). She is a black woman in Fort Worth, Texas who has had her dream deferred. Sixteen years ago, Turquoise won the pageant title in the southern town that comes with a scholarship prize, and due to a pregnancy, she was unable to finish her reign or take advantage of a college education. Life’s not what she thought it would be. She now waits tables at the neighborhood barbecue joint – picking up as many shifts as she can. She is determined to raise as much money as possible so that her 15-year old daughter Kai can enroll in the competition — and claim victory.
I’d been remiss in catching up with this indie gem when it came out last June. I have my staff as witnesses that it’s been on my list to see for months. Its lead actress recently won the Gotham Awards for Best Actress and last week it garnered four nominations for the Film Independent Spirit Awards, including Best Female Lead, Best Supporting Female and Best First Feature and Screenplay – and all of it is well-deserved. I’m glad I finally got to it! It’s a rich narrative – that gives us a much-needed portrait of a Black American working woman – and her hopes and dreams. The film itself becomes a sign of hope.
On the surface you think you know where Peoples’ film is going but as each scene progresses a new layer of depth and complexity is revealed. Organically, we’re given the context and importance of the Juneteenth holiday that celebrates the emancipation of those who had been enslaved in the United States. There’s a rich authenticity to the environment in which it takes place. Peoples shows us a Fort Worth – which at one point was a bustling area of Black commerce – as becoming gentrified, and the few remaining African American business owners who see the importance of holding onto them. Wayman, who owns the establishment that Turquoise works at – tells her “Ain’t no American dream for Black folks.” The places all look a bit dilapidated – but there’s a genuine warmth emanating from them – with the vibrant colors on their walls. Director of photography Daniel Patterson takes cues from the photojournalism of Gordon Parks.
We piece Turqouise’s past together from the bits of information we’re given. She still loves and sees the father of her daughter Kai – but she keeps him at bay. He has never provided for them and gambles his earnings away. We meet the grandmother Charlotte who is a devout churchgoer during the day and an avid drinker at night. Turquoise has learnt not to depend on her either – and has reasons for sheltering Kai away from her. We also meet Bacon – who owns a funeral parlor and is carving a successful path for himself and loves her. “You’re too good of a woman to be living the way you do,” he comments while offering her a chance to be with him.
Turquoise is interested in creating her own future and her daughter’s – although it seems at first her reason for pushing Kai into the beauty pageant is selfish and self-serving. “I gotta make sure she’s something we ain’t. She’s my dream now,” she tells Kai’s father. The young teenager is not interested in the etiquette training or being involved in the competition. She has her own ideas about her future and instead wants to express herself through dance. The scenes between mother and daughter are the heart of the movie. Although they may not see eye to eye – there’s so much love and respect between these two women – in the way the two look at each other – the way the mother corrects her grammar or the way they teasingly smear icing on each other’s faces. Peoples gives us three generations of black women – and the divergent routes they take.
Nicole Beharie gives one of the best performances of 2020 as the former beauty queen and single mom who has been given a lot of restrictions and is determined to push back. Her role reminded me a lot of that of Norma Rae in the 70s – it has that grit and determination.
Turquoise was owed that contest title and the benefits that came with it, and they were postponed. Her story is emblematic and powerful.
Turquoise: “That crown don’t make some magical life where all your dreams come true.”
Available to stream on Amazon Prime, Philo, BET+, Kanopy, Sling and DIRECTV. Available to rent on Microsoft, Google Play, Apple TV, iTunes, Vudu, FandangoNOW, DIRECTV and Redbox.
Written and Directed by Channing Godfrey Peoples
Starring Nicole Beharie, Kendrick Sampson, Alexis Chikaeze, Lori Hayes, Marcus M. Mauldin and Liz Mikel
Writing “Miss Juneteenth”
Peoples, along with producer and fellow USC grad Neil Creque Williams (“He has been a force for the film,” she says), started developing “Miss Juneteenth” right out of film school. “I’m always fascinated by stories of people whose dreams are deferred, whose lives don’t turn out as planned,” she says, noting her script’s thematic linking of personal and political history. As “Miss Juneteenth” went through various drafts, Peoples honed her voice, realizing that one of her strengths was writing arrestingly good vernacular dialogue. She and Williams submitted the script to a string of screenwriting competitions, reasoning that each submission would result in more feedback. The script wound up a Nicholl semifinalist, an American Zoetrope finalist, a Sundance Creative Producing Summit selection, an IFP Film Week pick, and it recently received an Austin Film Society grant and the inaugural SFFILM Westridge Foundation development grant. Peoples was also an Austin screenwriting fellow, where Charles Burnett mentored her. And Texas production company Sailor Bear (“A Ghost Story”) has joined Williams to produce. Director and showrunner Kat Candler read the script and hired Peoples as a staff writer on “Queen Sugar.” (Peoples wrote two episodes on in season three.) For now, though, Peoples is excited to jump from her home in L.A. back to “Cowtown”–the affectionate nickname for her Fort Worth, Texas neighborhood–for the prep and shoot. “I believe specificity is what sets stories apart,” she says, “and there’s a richness here—juke joints, funeral homes, an African American cowboy culture and a community that wants to see themselves represented on screen.” (filmmakermagazine.com)
The Making of “Miss Juneteenth”
Peoples first had to overcome the obstacle of explaining to prospective financiers and collaborators what Juneteenth was all about while pitching the film with her co-producer (and husband) Neil Creque Williams. “When I left Texas, especially when I went off to grad school in California, I would say to people, ‘Happy Juneteenth!’ They would just kind of look at me curiously,” Peoples recalls. “It was a constant education about what Juneteenth was and that was interesting because it was just so much a part of the fabric of my life growing up.” Filming her directorial debut in Fort Worth, Tex., was also an important opportunity for the filmmaker to spotlight the people and places that make her community what it is.“There’s so much of me in Turquoise, but there’s also so much of the women that I was surrounded by growing up — my mother, my grandmother, my aunts, the women in the community who lifted me up and supported me,” Peoples says. “And one of the things that really resonates with me as an adult is no matter what they were going through, they always had this dignity and this gracefulness and they all had this hope at the end of the day, no matter how difficult things got,” she adds. “I was really writing this story about the beauty of this community as well, because this community has beauty, but it also has people who have this sense of grit and resilience.” So, Peoples infused those qualities into the film’s story. And every detail was important and authentic — including the inclusion of Dr. Maya Angelou’s poem “Phenomenal Woman.” “You’re always gonna see at least one young woman do ‘Phenomenal Woman,’” she explains. “It was always written into the script and then, the more that I workshopped the script and really started to understand you know the lyrics in this beautiful poem, the more for me that, it describes who Turquoise is.”
She also employed people from her past to play small but pivotal roles in the film. “One of my favorite scenes in the film is this scene where Turquoise is at the end of the night, where she’s watching this woman on the [dance] floor, and you see that she has a loss of one of her arms,” she notes. “I know that woman in real life, and that was my moment with her. I watched her and I remember [thinking] ‘My God, this woman — here she is in all her beauty and all her resilience.’ It was just a formative moment for me and it’s something that I wanted people to experience, so I begged her to be in the film. It’s the way that I see the story; I see the beauty of the people in the film’s resilience.” In terms of her own resilience in the journey to direct her first film, Peoples points to the Austin Film Society program (Richard Linklater and her idol Charles Burnett) and the Sundance Institute, as well as Ava DuVernay (who she worked with on “Queen Sugar”), Gina Prince-Bythewood and Matthew A. Cherry, as mentors and filmmakers that encouraged or directly helped her get the project made. “The first day we shot, we were shooting an existing parade. I think it got really real for me that day,” Peoples recalls. “It was such a journey to get the film made that I didn’t believe it, until the first day that the camera rolled, that it was happening.” “I was also making this film as a new mom, and so that came with its own unique challenges,” she continues. “But one of the things that I can say about that experience was, I was also having my awakening about the way that I was interpreting Turquoise’s journey. Before [I had my daughter], I had this you know tougher love version of Turquoise on paper. I’d now experienced the joy and this bond with my daughter and also experienced love for another human being, my responsibility and care for another human being, so I understood Turquoise in a different way. And I understood her really having all these hopes and dreams and was going to fight for her child to have the best life.” (variety.com)
Writer and Director Channing Godfrey Peoples on “Miss Juneteenth”
“Thematically in the film, we’re talking about freedom and what freedom means for Black people. And here we are in 2020, still really navigating what freedom means for Black people — and that’s our freedom to survive and to be able to walk down the street or to be in our homes, and really to live,” she continues. “But I am trying to be as hopeful as possible in this moment because I’ve seen more Black voices and Black stories being amplified. And I think that that’s entirely important, so that we can see and we can hear more voices that speak to the humanity of Black people in this country.”
Of the historical context of her film, following recent pop-culture references to Juneteenth in episodes of “Atlanta” and “Black-ish,” Peoples says, “We talk about the history of Juneteenth in the film, [but] it’s not in particular a historical film. As a storyteller, I really look at the past a lot in my work and what we leave behind and what we choose to take forward.” “I really wanted to tell a story about a Black woman with a dream deferred that knows, at the end of the day, she just wants something for herself. She has these hopes and dreams for her child to have a better life. So, in a sense, she’s looking for a way to be free of her own past and the way that she saw herself,” Peoples explains. “I was literally commemorating Juneteenth in a way, because I was commemorating it as this annual day and I really wanted to portray that thematically in Turquoise’s journey in finding her own sense of freedom.” The movie follows Turquoise Jones (played by Nicole Beharie), a single mother working to put her daughter (newcomer Alexis Chikaeze) through the Miss Juneteenth scholarship pageant, which she herself had won as a teen. Growing up in Fort Worth, Texas, Peoples grew up celebrating the holiday — which commemorates June 19, 1865, the day news reached slaves in Texas that the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed two and a half years earlier — and the annual beauty pageant was part of the festivities. “[The pageant] was clearly nostalgic for me, something that I looked forward to every year and one of the things that I remember it being formative for me. Because, where people grew up and they’d go and watch ‘Miss America,’ I had a real time example of just all these young Black women on stage and all their various shades and hair textures and with all their confidence and their hope on their face,” she says. “I’m so grateful that I had that example and I see now that I really wanted a way to be able to showcase ‘Miss Juneteeth’ in some aspect, so other young women can also have this example in front of them.” (variety.com)
Nicole Beharie on “Miss Juneteenth”
“I thought it was really beautiful,” Beharie says of the multigenerational tale of a dream deferred. “And the script and the story just lightly touch on all these themes without being heavy-handed: There’s Juneteenth, Emancipation Proclamation, social hierarchies, gender politics, self-empowerment, beauty vs. scholastic [achievement] — all these different things happening, and you can miss it if you don’t pick up on the little bits and pieces.” The same can be said for Turquoise herself, a character of great complexity whose joys and disappointments Beharie wears devastatingly on her face. “I was really, really looking for a lead actor that could bring this sense of nuance to the role,” Peoples tells EW. “And [Beharie] does so much with just a look.” That sense of quiet expressiveness drew the actress to Turquoise in the first place. Even in her own life, Beharie says, she likes to look away from people standing center stage to those taking them in: “Sometimes that’s actually way more interesting, all the little opinions when people don’t think they’re being watched or they think that they’re not so important in this moment,” she says. “This is a moment where the camera turns on to someone who’s normally kind of ignored.”
Peoples’ camera also takes in quiet moments that might typically be overlooked; Beharie recalls the scene pictured above, where Turquoise sits alone on her front porch in her lopsided tiara. “I’ve never had a moment of the camera just letting you think, and the director trusting you to just process,” she says. “That was such a gift.” But there were additional factors that helped set that lingering pace. Early in production, Beharie sprained her ankle, so the cowboy boots she wears for much of the film are “not really a fashion choice,” she says with a laugh. On an indie budget and schedule, the production couldn’t shut down and wait for its star to recover, so the injury demanded concealing footwear — but it also slowed her down a bit. “I had to turn it into a choice,” the actress says. “It was like, actually, we’ve got to lean into this. So there’s a little bit more sway, out of necessity. It’s surprising to me that you can use something that is literally an impediment and turn it into a piece of the work. Sometimes things are serendipitous.” It wasn’t serendipity so much as a “bittersweet” coincidence that the film ended up having its release at such a moment as last year’s Juneteenth, a holiday that received greater recognition than ever in 2020 amid the widespread protests for Black lives and a national conversation about systemic racial injustice. “Some of the themes in the film — because of Channing’s magic, or whatever she downloaded from the heavens when she decided to do this — ended up landing right in the zeitgeist,” Beharie observes. “It’s a distinct honor to be in the title, or on this poster for a film that says Miss Juneteenth, knowing that this holiday commemorates the end of slavery in the U.S.,” the actress continues. “Making it a national holiday, I think, should be a goal. As we think about creating a really strong future and what we can be in the future, you have to acknowledge the past in order to do that — sort of similar to the conversation in the movie about what your legacy is, and what you’re creating. So that was another thing that drew me to it.” (ew.com)
About Writer and Director Channing Godfrey Peoples
Godfrey Peoples is an MFA graduate of the USC School of Cinematic Arts and was named one of Filmmaker Magazine’s “25 New Faces of Independent Film“ in 2018. As a Black woman and creator, her films are character-driven stories focusing on the resilience of the human spirit, often featuring Black women at a turning point in their lives. She is a Sundance Fellow, Austin Film Society Fellow and SFFilm Fellow. Her short film, “Red,” is a DGA Student Jury Award Winner. Additionally, Godfrey Peoples wrote two episodes of the acclaimed drama series “Queen Sugar” for the OWN Network and recently directed an episode of the upcoming series, “Generation” for HBO Max. (deadline.com) Godfrey Peoples wrote and directed the film “Miss Juneteenth” was released in 2020.