Juneteenth has been the subject of much conversation in the past week. The holiday, June 19, commemorates the date that slaves in Texas learned of the emancipation proclamation (two years after it became effective in 1863).
Last Thursday, Nike announced that it would join Vox Media, Twitter and other companies in their decision to make Juneteenth a paid holiday, while President Trump rescheduled a campaign rally in Tulsa from June 19 to June 20 after drawing much criticism.
For Fort Worth filmmaker Channing Godfrey Peoples, Juneteenth is the backdrop to warm childhood memories.
“I’ve always been very familiar with Juneteenth. It’s something that the community commemorates annually, and my family has always participated in some way,” she says, looking back on the "parades, coming together. ... There’s music, dance. There’s BBQ. There's community.
"And in the centerpiece of all of this is the Miss Juneteenth pageant which is obviously a scholastic beauty pageant for African American girls to gain scholarship,” she explains.
For Godfrey Peoples, the festivals also provided an opportunity to pay reverence to those who had passed.
"Every year it was just a special time and a time where we honor our ancestors and also where we connect as a community together to remember what those ancestors went through and endured, and eventually got their freedom even when it was late,” she says.
When it came time to picking a subject for her first film, Godfrey Peoples says she immediately thought of the Juneteenth pageant.
While Godfrey Peoples didn’t participate, ("But I’m clearly nostalgic and wish I had been," she jokes) she saw the competition as a scholastic opportunity and a chance at empowerment for young women. Pageants may have come to leave a bad taste in our mouths as reductive and anti-feminist, but Miss Juneteenth is not an event designed to measure women’s worth through their proportions, but instead offer a golden ticket to an academic future.
At least in most cases. In Miss Juneteenth, Turquoise Jones, played with remarkable depth by Nicole Beharie, is a former winner who has not lived up to her potential. A single mother with two jobs, one teenage daughter and a semi-present ex (the dangerously charismatic Kendrick Sampson), Jones hangs her do-over dreams on her daughter, who isn’t interested in picking up where her mother meant to leave off.
Where Turquoise has failed, she seeks to do damage control and live up to her crown — even if vicariously. The film is more of a study than a simple tale, a slow-burning story about resilience, broken expectations, and the flawed duality of the human spirit, like the character of Turquoise's mother, who's strict, church-going and a messy drunk, who too has perpetuated a "do as I say" parenting cycle.
Before she stepped behind the camera, Godfrey Peoples aimed to be in front of it.
“There really wasn’t an infrastructure for film growing up, so my exposure to the arts was mostly through community theater, and I had a family that was interested in the arts,” she says.
“Later I would discover other forms of writing, like poetry, story-writing and amateur playwriting, things like that,” she continues. "And I later got into acting and really started exploring that aspect of filmmaking.”
Godfrey Peoples was participating in a University of California thesis film and was so impressed by what she saw on campus that she decided to apply to the school. When she finished film school around 2011, she got into production and eventually got around to writing the movie she’d been working on “her whole life,” as she says with a big laugh.
“I’ve always been very fascinated with the Miss Juneteenth pageant, so it’s always been an idea that’s been in my head and a story that I wanted to tell in some way,” she says.
Much of the story was inspired by the women in the filmmaker's life — herself included.
"There’s so much of Turquoise in me," she says. "That sense of moving forward no matter what and you gotta tough it out and you gotta make something happen, there's a sense of that in me, but it’s not just me and Turquoise — it’s my mother and my grandmother and my aunts and the women in the community who surrounded me and encouraged and inspired my dreams, so absolutely there’s a lot that’s biographical in this story."
The movie was shot entirely “in the historical southside of Fort Worth and Como, Texas.” The cast, aside from Beharie (who’s most recognized from TV’s Sleepy Hollow and Black Mirror) is largely Texan, including Dallas actresses Alexis Chikaeze, who makes her feature film debut as Turquoise's daughter Kai, ("And she’s just, like, jumping," Godfrey Peoples says of the young actress' enthusiasm) and theater veteran Liz Mikel. (“She’s incredible. She deserves all the praise,” the director says.)
"The focus of the casting was [that] Turquoise has such a complex emotional journey and so we really were looking for someone who could bring the nuance to the role," Godfrey Peoples says of casting. "I’m also a director that likes to let actors live inside of some of those quiet moments, so we were definitely looking for someone who could navigate that, and we found that in Nicole Beharie."
At heart, the director says, the film is both particular to a mother’s life and universal in its symbolic themes.
“I wanted to tell a story about a black woman with a dream deferred that, somewhere in her heart she just knows, she might not know exactly what it is, but what she knows is that she wants something for herself… and I also wanted to tell a story that integrated Juneteenth in the backdrop so I think thematically we’re telling this story about our ancestors gaining their freedom late and in a sense so is Turquoise, like, she’s getting her freedom late after she has this disappointment early on, but eventually she finds freedom in finding a new way to dream.”
The film premiered at Sundance film festival, which Godfrey Peoples calls “very special.” Miss Juneteenth also won the Louis Black Lone Star Award for Best Texan Film at South by Southwest this year.
Fellow North Texan filmmaker Augustine Frizzell (Never Goin' Back, Euphoria) is a friend and vocal supporter of Godfrey Peoples' and her debut film.
"I feel lucky to know Channing and grateful that her art and voice are about to be known to the world," she tells the Observer. "Miss Juneteenth is extraordinary and the type of film we rarely see, but so desperately need."
Neil Creque Williams, Godfrey Peoples' husband, is one of the film's producers.
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"We’ve been pushing the film up the hill for a while to get it done," she says. “You take it to festivals and open it up to audiences and then you hope the film is released to the world and that’s what’s happening now and that’s an exciting time for us and it’s also a very difficult time for the African American community.”
Because of COVID-19, the film will be primarily released digitally in VOD and at the Granberry Theater in Fort Worth, on June 19. Godfrey Peoples has conflicting feelings about the timing of the release in terms of the state of the world.
“I don’t think anyone could’ve anticipated it, but yes, it’s coming out at a very difficult time in the African American community but ... I just hope that this gives some sense of hope for us right now," she says.
“There’s feelings of elation that the film is coming out and there’s also the sense of sadness and reverence that we as African Americans are going through this and we’re 155 years after the dissolution of slavery in this country,” she continues. “And we’re still fighting some of these battles about our freedom and even our freedom to breathe right now.”