Director Channing Godfrey Peoples on her new film's exploration of Black women's strength, mother-daughter bonds, and always being sure to find the joy amid pain.

By Dina Gachman
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Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie) is a former Miss Juneteenth pageant winner holding onto her crown and ball gown like relics from a distant past. As that crown gathers dust in the closet, Turquoise tries to make a life for herself as a single mom raising her rebellious teenage daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) and making ends meet by waitressing at Wayman’s BBQ and working part-time as a cosmetologist at a local funeral home. She’s transferred all of her unfulfilled Miss Juneteenth hopes onto Kai, who wants nothing to do with her mom’s dreams for her future.

Writer and director Channing Godfrey Peoples grew up in the tight-knit Texas community where Miss Juneteenth takes place, attending the pageants each year and gaining inspiration from the young Black girls on stage, not knowing that years later, the experience would inspire her first feature film — a film that premiered at Sundance and has gone on to win multiple awards.

Juneteenth celebrates the day enslaved people in Texas were finally freed on June 19, 1865 — two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect — and with the holiday making headlines in the wake of protests about the killing of George Floyd and police violence in America, Miss Juneteenth resonates. At its heart, though, it’s the story of a mother and daughter, of Black women fighting to be heard, and of a single mom refusing to take the easy road in life.

Peoples talked to InStyle about her film, the ways the Miss Juneteenth pageant, unlike most beauty pageants, is actually empowering for young Black women, and what it has been like putting a movie into the world during such a tumultuous time in America. 

Nick Prendergast

InStyle: You’ve said that the Miss Juneteenth pageant had a big impact on you as a kid growing up in Fort Worth, Texas, long before you got the idea to make this film. What do you remember most about the day?

Channing Godfrey Peoples: We went as a family every year, and as a kid it gave me a glimpse of what Juneteenth was, and showed me every aspect of the holiday. There was always music, there was dancing and BBQ and parades. There were lift-every-voice-and-sing components, and as a child I had this wide-eyed excitement about it all. Juneteenth gave me a strong sense of community, and it was important in my family that we experienced it every year.

And then there was the pageant...

Every year, the most defining part of the experience was the pageant. That was the centerpiece. It was like my version of Miss America. As a young Black girl, I got the chance to see beautiful young Black women on stage with all of their talent and intelligence and excitement and hopes for the future, and that stayed with me. It gave me my own sense of confidence, seeing folks that looked like me on stage.

Were you ever in the pageant?

I never was in the pageant, but I am clearly nostalgic and I wish that I had been, because here I am making a movie about it.

When did you start to think about the characters and story for Miss Juneteenth?

In my wild child imagination, I would wonder where the women would go when they stepped off that stage, and that stayed with me. I would wonder what happened in their lives.

Were there any specific stories that stayed with you or that you discovered about the contestants in years past, or was the film inspired strictly by your own imagination of what became of them?

The Black community in the historic Southside of Fort Worth where I grew up feels like its own close-knit little country town, and I still keep up with some of the people, but there are just so many of them. The story isn’t about a specific woman. Over the years I would just wonder about an imaginary Miss Juneteenth who didn’t live up to what the expectations of a pageant winner should be. I started thinking about that, and the idea was born. It’s not a pageant film, though. It’s about Turquoise’s journey.

Beauty pageants are problematic for many feminists, for good reason. What do you think makes the Miss Juneteenth pageant different?

Miss Juneteenth isn’t about a European sense of beauty; it’s about the beauty among these young African American women who are all different sizes and textures of hair and styles that are not often seen in a beauty pageant. It’s also about their intelligence. There’s an essay section, there’s talent with Afro-centric dance, Maya Angelou’s poem “Phenomenal Woman” is always performed. That part of it was essential to the movie because I saw that side of it every year as a kid, and it was transformative to me. I hope that can be seen in the film.

There are a few scenes that show another side to the pageant, with a few characters talking down to Kai or trying to belittle her because she’s not living up to a feminine ideal of Miss Juneteenth.

The Miss Juneteenth pageant is about empowerment, and you get a taste of the competitiveness between some girls and it’s definitely there, but it’s really about Black women fortifying each other. Some of the young girls we cast were former Miss Juneteenths or they were affiliated with the pageant, and some were actors. What we saw in the making of the film was this natural camaraderie that the girls came to have, and they were so supportive of each other and they’re still in touch.

How did you approach the film visually?

I wanted every aspect of the film to feel like it was just past its expiration date. The visual look mirrored Turquoise’s feeling that life had passed her by, and I wanted it to feel like she was holding onto things past their usefulness. That was also rooted in the community in Fort Worth we shot the film in, which was once a bustling hub for Black folks and is now being gentrified, except for a few neighborhood strongholds.

It’s no secret that Hollywood hasn’t been kind to female directors or writers, so did you come up against any walls as a Black woman trying to get your first film made?

Oh, sure. I’m making a film with a Black female lead, so that in and of itself was hard because those films are so few and far between. It took many years of pushing the project up the hill before it was financed. My husband Neil [Creque Williams, one of the film’s producers] had a great idea to submit the script to development programs like the Sundance Institute or the Austin Film Society, and through those experiences we could get notes and develop the script, and it also helped with visibility. Still, we’ve been pushing this film uphill the whole way. Even after we got financing there were ups and downs, and there were distributors who passed on the movie because the film was “too narrow” or “too small of a story.” It took passion and determination and drive to tell this story, and at the end of the day, I’m grateful it’s getting out into the world.

It has definitely been a unique time to be putting a movie out into the world, during a time when theatrical releases are pretty much at a standstill. The SXSW Film Festival in Austin was cancelled in March because of the pandemic, and your film was slated to play there, so how have the last few months been for you?

We got our premiere at Sundance in January, but as a Texas filmmaker it was important to us to premiere the film at SXSW in Austin also. You miss those moments when they don’t happen. My husband and I were home in our apartment with our 22-month old daughter trying to put a film out in the world during a pandemic, and then the tragedy with George Floyd and all of the things happening in this country with African Americans happened. What a time to release a film.

Juneteenth is definitely on people’s minds right now, in the wake of what has been happening in the country, and with calls to declare it a national holiday. Now that you’re not a wide-eyed little girl watching the pageant, what does Juneteenth mean to you?

Commemorating Juneteenth for me is about commemorating our ancestors, who were slaves in Texas, finally getting their freedom. The sadness in that is that they got their freedom two-and-a-half years after everybody else did. I wanted to portray that idea of people getting their freedom late thematically in Turquoise’s journey, which is about a woman finding her own sense of freedom by coming to terms with her own past, even though she finds that freedom later in life.

Those themes definitely carry the film, and they define the mother-daughter bond that really is at the heart of the story.

I would love people to get that sense in the mother daughter bond. It was important for me to tell a story about this Black woman who has a dream deferred and wants something for herself, even though she doesn’t know what that is yet. It’s about a Black woman, with her hopes and dreams for her child to have a better life, and I feel like that is where we are in this country right now. Black people’s freedom to even breathe is in question right now, and that has to change. Not just for us in this moment, but for our children.

How did you develop the character of Kai, Turquoise’s daughter?

Kai represents the next generation. She’s a Black child growing up in America who is taught that the dream might not be possible for her — and her dream is simply the ability to be carefree. Turquoise has lived in the world, and she has experienced some of the limitations of being a Black woman in America, so she has fears for her daughter and wants to hold her close. Kai just wants to express herself and you see it in the way she wears her hair natural, and the way she dreams of just wanting to dance and be with friends and not fall into her mom’s dreams for her. Kai is starting to bump up against some of the limitations of being a Black woman, and she’s discovering what that will mean in adulthood.

What has been the most memorable part of making this film?

The most memorable thing about this journey was that right when I found out I could make the film, I found out I was pregnant. Once I had my daughter, Zora, it changed the trajectory of the story. Originally there was a really tough love version of Turquoise on paper, and that remained, but then I experienced this joy for my child along with the protectiveness and fear and hopes for what her future would be like. So, when I was directing the actors, I would always remind them to find the joy, not just the pain.

Miss Juneteenth is available on demand and on digital starting June 19.