What does freedom look like?
When you’re a black person in America living in a post-civil rights era world, currently suffocating from the smoke in a racist climate as the words “I Can’t Breathe” echo in the sky, the answer to that question is...complicated, to say the very least.
June 19, 2020 marks 155 years since the first Juneteenth was established on June 19, 1865. As The Root’s cherished founder Henry “Skip” Louis Gates Jr. maps out in his forever-relevant “What Is Juneteenth?” explainer:
The First Juneteenth
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.” —General Orders, Number 3; Headquarters District of Texas, Galveston, June 19, 1865
When Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger issued the above order, he had no idea that, in establishing the Union Army’s authority over the people of Texas, he was also establishing the basis for a holiday, “Juneteenth” (“June” plus “nineteenth”), today the most popular annual celebration of emancipation from slavery in the United States. After all, by the time Granger assumed command of the Department of Texas, the Confederate capital in Richmond had fallen; the “Executive” to whom he referred, President Lincoln, was dead; and the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery was well on its way to ratification.
But Granger wasn’t just a few months late. The Emancipation Proclamation itself, ending slavery in the Confederacy (at least on paper), had taken effect two-and-a-half years before, and in the interim, close to 200,000 black men had enlisted in the fight.
Writer-Director Channing Godfrey Peoples examines the freedom of a black community living in small town-Texas her feature film debut, Miss Juneteenth. The film follows Turquoise (Nicole Beharie), a formerly crowned Miss Juneteenth, who is so wrapped in the nostalgic glamour of the pageant that she makes it her mission to prepare her daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) for the current competition so that she may follow in her footsteps. But for the single mom, who got pregnant shortly after winning and could never benefit from the HBCU full-ride that came with her title, this crown is more than just a generational legacy. It’s a way to steer Kai down a different path, one that doesn’t include working at Wayman’s BBQ & Lounge, or working odd jobs and dodging unpaid bills. It’s a chance for Turquoise’s baby girl to carry on her dreams deferred.
Along with Beharie and Chikaeze, Miss Juneteenth stars Kendrick Sampson, Lori Hayes, Liz Mikel, Marcus M. Mauldin, Phyllis Cicero, Akron Watson, Lisha Hackney, Jaime Mathis and more. Over the span of two days, I sat down and talked on the phone with Peoples and Beharie on their history with Juneteenth, the central themes of the film and what true freedom looks like for black creators in Hollywood.
Though young black girls have every reason to relish in their unmatched beauty, the Miss Juneteenth pageant contestants also must ingest the holiday’s rich history. Peoples, who has Texas roots, grew up with the holiday ingrained in her spirit (also telling me that her own baby daughter is “a Miss Juneteenth baby”), but many others in the black community like myself, didn’t learn of the holiday until adulthood...let alone the beloved pageant that honored it. Thanks to a systemically diluted education system, most of us grew up believing that the Emancipation Proclamation was the end-all for American chattel slavery. Additionally, little did I know of scholarship-based pageant that takes place in locations, even beyond Texas such as Florida and Louisiana. I also recently learned, through a very informative Twitter thread, that the holiday is celebrated by black Mexicans, as well. So, there is certainly so much more to learn.
“I didn’t find out about it until I was in college doing a play and it was part of our research,” Beharie recalled. “Even then, it wasn’t something that people were necessarily embracing or that’s on a national stage, which, I would love if this film could help with that, especially this year, in the climate. It would be great to consider giving it more love.”
Longtime fans of Beharie such as myself constantly experience the word “underrated” dancing across their lips when describing her, but no matter what project I see her in, she never fails. Through her incredible ability to communicate limited layers of subtext via one look, Beharie commands every frame. In Turquoise, Beharie portrays a mother’s eagerness for her daughter to carry her torch with the vigor and vibrancy her character’s name dictates.
In a standout moment in the film Turquoise releases a simple yet poignant proclamation, “I just want something for myself.” In fact, Beharie muses to me that we witness a “mini emancipation” with Kai and Turquoise.
“Thematically we’re talking about this sense of Texas finding out they got their freedom two and a half years after everybody else, so I was trying to find a way to mirror Turquoise’s journey with that,” Peoples told The Root. “We were always asking the question, ‘What does freedom look like for each of the characters?’ That was just a big thing for me. I wanted to honor the ancestors if I could. I’m making the movie about a woman who’s looking for a way to find something for herself, her own sense of freedom.”
Miss Juneteenth is a film that has the confidence to sit in the quiet moments and allow black folks to just be...which, to me, is a sense of freedom. Perhaps we can revel in that American Dream through this film, instead of the American Nightmare we’ve been...and are in now.
“I was mimicking the pacing of the community,” Peoples mused. “Fort Worth, Texas, is where I’m from [...] and the southside of Fort Worth [is] where the film is set. There’s a sense of timelessness in the community. [...] I also wanted the film to feel like it was lived in and that dictated everything—the pacing, the production design, the visual look, the costumes, all of it. [For example,] the bar is this multigenerational place where people just come from all generations and just sit there forever and ever and never really close. It’s closed now, obviously because of the time that we’re in, [but] it’s just one of those things where...the more [things] change, the more they remain the same.”
“As actors, sometimes we get something out of it, too, but you’re ultimately stepping in and serving someone else’s vision,” Beharie told The Root, noting she loved working with a black woman director and diving into the “grassroots” nature of the production. “I have worked with a lot of people supporting their vision and serving it, trying to make the character come alive. [With] this particular script, I love the nuance. I love the complexity of the characters, the fact that everybody was perfectly imperfect and trying to find their way, that there’s no black and white read on anybody in the story. I love that it wasn’t necessarily about the white gaze, as Toni Morrison says. It’s definitely about the community and the family.”
Speaking of community, there’s an unrelenting, fire-hot chemical bond between Beharie and Chikaeze (the latter of whom, shines in an exquisite acting debut) that is so strong, it’s hard to take your eyes off the two whenever they’re on-screen. When Beharie told me she channeled the healing energy she always exudes via her social media to connect with Chikaeze, it made so much sense.
“I was raised by a single mom of two who scratched to survive and provided a better life for myself and my siblings,” Beharie said. “And I think one of the best ways you can try to give back is to be like, ‘I see you, I saw you and I’m going to try to show the world what your heart looks like, even though you are grinding every day.’ So, I try to embody that as much as I can. [...] It makes me think of the people that have been working on the front line during Corona or the people that are out there protesting. The activists, largely, Black Lives Matter—These are women running the organization that are working closely and really hard and I don’t know that we tell those stories enough. So, I wanted to be part of that. I think that’s where I pull it from. I’m not a superhero. I don’t think any of us are superheroes. There is a lot of power, but there’s also tenderness and needs that need to be met. And I think you get to see that in this story.”
In Hollywood, black creators have long felt trapped in an endless cycle of erasure, sprinkled with tortuous teasings of diversity, inclusion and equity. As we witness a shift in transparent accountability within this industry, will black creators truly be free to tell their vast array rich stories?
“Now people are saying, ‘OK, we hear and we see there’s an imbalance. But also [tackling] the micro and subtle things that happen on set,” Beharie noted. “You know, I’ve lived through some interesting things in my life, my sistaaaaaa [...] I’ve definitely seen some inequality where everyone just kind of turns a blind eye. And we’ve seen that [with the] Times Up and Me Too [movements]. But there wasn’t really a conversation specifically about, just being of color and how that happens too. I think people are acknowledging it.”
“Hopefully it’s not a trend and something that lasts,” Beharie continued, acknowledging that the recent “I Take Responsibility” PSA is “a step.” “And then, hopefully, we don’t get penalized for asking for certain rights or just checking in and being like, ‘Hey, I understood that this was the terms of my conditions and it seems like I’m getting different treatment, which I personally know I’ve done in the past. And I felt the wrath of speaking up. But hopefully...hopefully there’s a real change. I’m cautiously optimistic.”
“I hope we will actually see a real change,” Peoples noted. “Let this be the time where there’s an influx of black stories and we realize that black stories are not just a monolith. There’s so many different perspectives. We’re from all sorts of geographic locations and we have all these different stories to tell. In a time [where] this horrible, tragic thing is happening, this reckoning is coming out of it. I’m just hoping that it’s a lasting change.”
Miss Juneteenth is now available via On Demand and Digital.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.