Though Channing Godfrey Peoples’ directorial debut “Miss Juneteenth” is named for the holiday often called “Black Independence Day” or “Freedom Day,” the film is not a history lesson. At least not entirely. And with the film’s release on the 155th anniversary of the holiday, Peoples can’t help but find the moment a little bittersweet.
“There’s so much excitement in having the film go out into the world and people being able to see the story that’s been so near and dear to me,” Peoples tells Variety. “But we’re also in this really difficult time, especially within the Black community.”
“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.”
But 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.”
“Miss Juneteenth” is now streaming on VOD and digital.