Authenticity cannot be learned. If a director doesn’t know their setting and characters, savvy viewers will immediately be able to tell. As a Southerner, I have often been sceptical of the way Hollywood depicts the American South.
In popular culture, Southern pride is usually associated with white people – and with nostalgia for the Confederacy. But for Black Southerners, there’s much more to it than that.
After the Civil War, we as a people were given our first chance to build lives for ourselves. Many went up North, but for those who stayed it was about reclaiming space and building communities in our own image.
Unlike colonisers, Black Americans had to construct their identity from the ground up, with little information regarding where we came from. As a result, the communities that were built in the South were founded on the promise of freedom and a sense of a communal discovery.
The cultural traditions we have now were created in those communities back then, and our pride stems from our refusal to leave, even as our former masters tried to drive us out. Once we were no longer property and joined society, we became a threat to their way of life.
Therefore, staying in the cities in which we were enslaved was our own form of radical action, based on the belief that we could push racism out of our lives and transform our environment for the better. Southern films carry the weight of that history, whether they acknowledge it or not.
Miss Juneteenth, the debut feature by director Channing Godfrey Peoples, is a film that feels entirely authentic and one that carries that weight of history on its shoulders, sets it down in front of us and asks us to take it in.
Its beautifully observed story, centred around a mother and daughter relationship, draws on Peoples’s own life growing up in Fort Worth, Texas, watching the annual ‘Miss Juneteenth’ pageants – events held each year on the Juneteenth holiday on 19 June, a celebration created to commemorate the abolition of slavery in Texas in 1865, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
“They really were my ‘Miss America’,” Peoples tells me. “I realise now how confidence-building they were for me – seeing all those Black women on stage made me feel hopeful.”
Hopeful, yes, but it took a while for Peoples to grasp the importance of the pageant’s name. “Growing up in Texas, Juneteenth was always a huge part of my life, but I didn’t fully grasp the importance of the holiday until I was an adult,” she says.
As the last in the United States to become free, the Black people of Texas have a history unlike any others in the country. And in the tradition of reclaiming pain and transforming their environment, the Juneteenth celebration and pageant has a special significance.
Peoples’s film follows working mother Turquoise (played by Nicole Beharie) as she prepares her daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) for the annual event. Kai is 14 going on 15 and this is the first year she qualifies to compete. Turquoise is determined to lead her daughter to victory.
Sixteen years earlier, Turquoise herself was a pageant winner, but her life since hasn’t lived up to the potential the win seemed to promise. Instead, Turquoise fell in love with Kai’s father Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson), got married – then separated, though they’re still drawn to each other – and never finished school, and she now works in a bar.
“For Turquoise, the film is really about a dream deferred,” Peoples explains, “and part of that is due to her not having the support she needed growing up.” Turquoise never speaks explicitly about her upbringing in the film, but when her mother Charlotte (Lori Hayes) appears on screen there is genuine tension.
Charlotte is a churchgoer in the day and an alcoholic at night, and it is clearly implied that she was an inattentive or abusive mother. To make up for this, Turquoise is devoted to Kai and projects her dreams on to her, hoping her strict pushing will lead her daughter to a better life than the one she has. But Kai is a free spirit – she isn’t too worried about what the future holds. Part of that is being a teenager, but it also speaks to how much the younger generation’s expectations are changing.
“The film is about parenting and family,” Peoples explains. “I wanted to explore the idea of a generational curse.” She uses these three generations of women to highlight the different paths Black women take to survive.
For Peoples, Turquoise is “constantly pushing on this idea of respectability”, but it comes from “a genuine place of fear and concern for her daughter”. As an actor, Beharie beautifully expresses this concern. When they’re on screen together, Beharie rarely keeps her eyes off Chikaeze, studying her every move and micro-expression.
Turquoise is a quiet character, letting her eyes and hands do the talking. She dotes on her daughter the way Southern mothers often do – fixing her hair, smoothing out her shirt and reminding her to finish her homework.
Peoples describes her intentions in crafting these characters: “A lot of my work is about Black women – our place in the world and how we see ourselves. There are restrictions and limitations that are forced upon us in society. It’s about whether we accept those limitations or push back against them. Charlotte, Turquoise and Kai are different versions of how women navigate that within the story.”
While Turquoise leans on the pageant and the promise of respectability, Charlotte has decided “looks are all a woman needs to survive”. And then there’s Kai, who seems to reject both these notions. “Looking at the film through the lens of Juneteenth, this is a story about people trying to get their freedom,” Peoples adds. “It’s about addressing the question: what does freedom mean for these characters?”
For Peoples, the arts have been a step towards her own freedom. Before becoming a director, she hoped to be a singer or actor. “My background in the arts began in a small community theatre in my side of town called Sojourner Truth,” she says.
“I got to see really complex Black plays in this theatre. I saw Purlie there. I saw For Colored Girls, and I became taken with the stories. But I connected to the actors, because that’s who I saw first and had access to. And where I came from, there wasn’t really an infrastructure for cinema.
“Later in life I became taken with literature: you know, the greats, like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker and Dr Maya Angelou. I would read these stories and they were all complex portraits of Black life – Black women in particular. I would read them and see the pictures in my head.”
Peoples studied theatre at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, before enrolling at the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, where she acted in a thesis film – an experience that helped her realise the potential of low-budget filmmaking. Suddenly, making films felt possible.
Working with producer and fellow USC grad Neil Creque Williams, Peoples began writing the script that became Miss Juneteenth, entering it in to a number of screenwriting competitions, which earned her valuable feedback and important grants.
She also became an Austin screenwriting fellow, where she was mentored by the great African-American director Charles Burnett, whose films, such as Killer of Sheep (1977), have often captured the textures of Black working-class and family life in similar ways to those found in Miss Juneteenth.
Once Peoples had honed her skills, and attracted Texas-based production company Sailor Bear to produce, she returned to her hometown to tell her story about the community and pageant that inspired her.
The extended focus on Texas history in Miss Juneteenth often gives the film a documentary-like feel. With its slow place and lived-in characters, each frame feels like a capturing of life, radiating with warmth and sweat.
When asked about the film’s feel, Peoples gives me a history lesson: “Fort Worth is the thirteenth largest city in the United States, believe it or not. I grew up on the south side, which is a historically Black community.
“At one point it was a bustling area of Black commerce, but today it’s much different. The businesses that remain have been passed down in the community by families that have made a conscious choice to hold on to them. The bar and the funeral home you see in the film are real places. These small businesses are all that remains. The rest of the city has been gentrified.” Because of this, Peoples instructed her costume and set designers to make sure that everything looked “past its expiration date”.
She also drew inspiration from the photography of Gordon Parks, particularly his ‘Segregation Story’ images, taken on assignment for Life magazine in the mid-50s – Parks’s influence is keenly felt in the way the director of photography Daniel Patterson captures Fort Worth, giving it an old world dignity.
While the setting represents the old world, Kai symbolises what’s to come. She’s a classic coming-of-age character, optimistic and free-spirited. As her mother pushes her more and more towards the pageant and the respectable lifestyle it promises, Kai rebels with her love of dancing.
“In the Black community, dancing is often instinctual,” Peoples says. “I wanted to show Kai expressing herself through her body and really being present. Her love of dance is born out of this passion and need to move. When I’m writing, my characters speak to me: Kai told me that she was going to dance.”
Whenever Kai isn’t preparing for the pageant, she’s moving, trying to show her mother who she is. While Turquoise sees Kai as an extension of herself, Kai is screaming out for her own freedom from old expectations. She wants more.
To Peoples, Kai is the most important character in the film. “For Black women, life has always been about survival, but I want more than that. Eventually, I want to find a place in which I can thrive. And that’s what I want for my characters as well. I wanted to show them on the road to thriving, and Kai is already well on her way.”
Originally published: 23 September 2020