Everyone Needs to Watch ‘Miss Juneteenth’
Channing Godfrey Peoples is the filmmaker we all need to know
Channing Godfrey Peoples is the Black Southern woman filmmaker we didn’t know we needed. Her debut feature film, Miss Juneteenth — the Sundance darling now available on all digital platforms — feels as urgently necessary as Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. The character Turquoise Jones, portrayed by the tragically underutilized Nicole Beharie, is today’s Janie Crawford. Like Janie, Turquoise is a Black Southern woman on the all-important journey to discover herself, even if she doesn’t know it yet.
Turquoise is a mother who refuses to let the promise of progress skip over her daughter. For her, a do-over is the solution to her seemingly failed life. She wants 15-year-old Kai to win the prized “Miss Juneteenth” title that her mother once claimed. Except this time, the teen can take full advantage of the HBCU scholarship that comes with the title. The only problem is Kai doesn’t see it that way. She’d much rather join the dance team than compete in a pageant. Turquoise, who is already living paycheck to paycheck, goes full throttle into paying-for-a-pageant mode, picking up extra hours at the hole-in-the-wall where she waitresses and scheduling as many makeup artist side gigs as the local funeral home allows.
In telling this nuanced story, Peoples centers Black women in a way rarely seen on film. The ability to do this is directly influenced by Black women’s literature, the filmmaker says.
“I really feel like ‘Miss Juneteenth’ found me.”
“My cinematic journey didn’t start with picking up a camera. It started in a literary way,” she explains. “I read Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. Gloria Naylor, Maya Angelou [whose “Phenomenal Woman” plays a small but important role in the film], all these great women that defined for me a sense of what it was like to be a Black woman in America. So, naturally my stories are about Black women taking a step forward in their journeys and their lives.”
That Peoples weaves all that Black girl magic into a film with a Black historic backdrop is all the more impressive. Today, many Americans are learning that Juneteenth marks the date of June 19, 1865, when a group of our enslaved ancestors in Galveston, Texas, first learned that the Emancipation Proclamation, issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, freed them. For Peoples, a natives of Fort Worth, Texas, Juneteenth has always been a part of her life.
“I really feel like Miss Juneteenth found me because my family would take me to the Juneteenth commemoration every year,” she says. “Juneteenth in Texas is commemorated with parades, blues music, barbecue, all those special things, but what was most special to me within the centerpiece of this day was the Miss Juneteenth pageant.
“That was most special to me because I could see all these young, beautiful, incredible, talented, intelligent African American women on stage. For me, that was my version of Miss America. That was formative for me and gave me a sense of confidence,” Peoples continues. “I remember always thinking, ‘What happened to those young women?’ And it just stayed in the back of my head, and Miss Juneteenth was born.”
It’s not a stretch to say that, for many viewers, Miss Juneteenth will be their first real introduction to the holiday in practice. That was the case for the film’s teenage star Alexis Chikaeze. Although Chikaeze is a Texan, from Dallas, both her parents are Nigerian immigrants. Co-starring in the film, her first, was a great history lesson.
“Growing up in this educational system, we did not learn about Juneteenth,” Chikaeze says. “I don’t think I can ever recount the time where we actually went into depth about what Juneteenth is or in general what Black history is.”
However, Chikaeze says, Black American history is important to her. “At the end of the day, before anybody asks me if I’m Nigerian, they are going to see that I’m a Black girl,” she explains. “I’m still Black at the end of the day.”
“I want to be able to tell the joys and the pains of living as a Black person, a Black woman, in the South.”
To tell Turquoise’s personal and inner history, Peoples mined other aspects of her own life, as well as those of her mother and aunts, especially in defining the one-time beauty queen’s emotionally turbulent on-again, off-again relationship with Ronnie. “Growing up, there was always a kitchen table story of that one man you had to come to that realization about,” she explains. “I had it, they had it, and so I wanted to channel that in the film.”
As in real life, Ronnie isn’t all bad, which is the problem. And, of course, there’s another man, Bacon, the prosperous funeral home owner waiting in the wings to whisk Turquoise away from all the pain caused by Ronnie’s continuous broken promises.
“What I really strive to do as a storyteller is create characters that are human. None of them are truly black and white. They’re shades of gray,” Peoples says. “So, with Ronnie, I really tried to create a character where you get that he loves his daughter. You get this love for Turquoise. But at the end of the day, in order to take this next step in her journey, Turquoise has to move forward.”
Moving forward also means reconciling her relationship with her own mother. Another highlight of Miss Juneteenth is the broaching of both the joy and trauma of mother-daughter relationships. With Turquoise and Kai, we see a loving mother-daughter bond, even when those teenage hormones kick in to challenge it. Through Turquoise’s mother, Charlotte (Lori Hayes), we see the dynamic of a daughter dealing with an alcoholic mother who swaps out her addiction for Jesus during her sober stints.
“Turquoise has these hopes and dreams for her child to have a better life, but there’s also this discussion of what we leave behind and then what we take with us,” Peoples says. “You see some of that hopefully in [Turquoise’s] mother-daughter dynamic [with Kai], but also in her dynamic with her own mom.”
Peoples’ crowning achievement with Miss Juneteenth is telling her story her way.
“I love being from the South. You can obviously see that in my work. I grew up in Black Texas that has defined its own sense of pride and history. I want to be able to tell the joys and the pains of living as a Black person, a Black woman, in the South,” Peoples says. “I want to be able to relay that and bring that to the screen.”