2020 has been a doozy of a year. But for all of the heartache and loss, we’ve also been privileged to learn or unlearn and witness oppressive structural forces crumble. We’re living through unprecedented times. And we have to admit that some of this is divine timing.
This year, with the discussions around racism, the community and the country has found renewed interest in Juneteenth, a day commemorating the day enslaved Black people in Texas learned that they had been freed, two years before.
So now is the perfect time for the release of a Black woman’s, Channing Godfrey Peoples, film Miss Juneteenth.
The story is a coming of age story about a mother and daughter. The mother, Turquoise played by Nicole Beharie, is a former beauty queen turned hard-working single mom. In the story, the mom is preparing her rebellious teenage daughter Kai, played by newcomer Alexis Chikaeze, for the Miss Juneteenth pageant, hoping to keep her from repeating the same mistakes in life that she made.
We had the pleasure of speaking to actress Nicole Beharie about the film, classism within the Black community, a discussion about the current uprising, and which Black lives matter. See what she had to say below.
What drew you to this project by the way?
It was the script. I could relate to almost every one of the characters and I was able to see that they were trying their best with the information that they had and the awareness they had. I love that nobody was the bad guy. They were flawed. I think about the Jill Scott album Perfectly Imperfect. I love characters that have all those different colors. And sometimes, unfortunately that can be rare. I’ve also lived in the South. I feel like when we tell stories about the South or we have those dialects, it’s always in reference to Civil Rights or to some moment about inequality or disenfranchisement. I was interested in telling a story, just about a slice of life, just about the people, day to day and their lives—as Toni Morrison says—out of the White gaze.
Speaking of slice of life. I think both Black and White people are guilty of believing that Black people are a monolith. But in this film, I really liked that we saw the differences in class.
There are certain people that get discarded, not just in the Black community but in the world. They aren’t the focus of most of our storytelling and attention. If you were to see Turquoise—Turquoise is a sister that’s probably working on the front lines right now doing the day to day stuff and nobody is doing a special on her. But they’ll interview me. So what I can do is try to tell that kind of story.
I also feel like we could have taken it even further to be perfectly honest. Having lived in the South and being a woman of color, there’s hierarchy in skin tone. I love that Kai, in the film, makes a choice about her hair. I don’t want to give it away. She sort of comes into her own in way. But Channing and the producing team certainly had that conversation without making it a big thing. But even to play a character that isn’t wearing makeup or isn’t comfortable in certain spaces because she knows she’s being judged. That’s real. That the extra subtext that’s kind of pulsing through our communities.
Even right now. We’re talking about Black Lives Matter, but it’s getting parsed down to ‘Which Black Lives Matter?’
Man, look! Whew. Oh my goodness. Honestly, I’d unplugged for a few days. This is a side note. I needed a little break. I’m normally a lot more lively on these interviews but I just, just read about Toyin (The late 19-year-old activist Oluwatoyin Salau who was killed.) And whew! I’m in my feelings right now. It just feels like…it’s so sad.
So yeah, which ones matter. Everybody gets to choose what they feel is important.
Speaking about that, they had a conversation about Turquoise having to engage in work that is not viewed favorably in the community. And I really liked how the character addressed that. Can you speak to that choice for the character.
That choice in the script, I ended up finding out that was based on someone that Channing actually knew. It was very personal to her. And again, we’re talking about people who are scratching to survive, women who are willing to do anything to protect their children and their communities and sometimes it’s by any means necessary. I loved that she tried to protect her from it and she’s trying to protect her from a reality that she’s had to face.
There’s a real sweetness in Alexis Chikaeze who plays Kai, who was so lovely to work with. It’s her first film. I’m excited to introduce her to the world. Casting a young lady who is so sweet and has this kindness, you feel like, without it being said, that Turquoise has done her job. She has sheltered her and made her feel like anything is possible. She’s made her feel safe in her own skin so she can make some of these choices because obviously Turquoise didn’t have that. I feel like that’s what mothers—parents are always doing is trying to push it a little bit further to make it better for the next generation.
The biological, physiological version of it is needing to survive and being pregnant, maybe losing your scholarship and all of that stuff because of the rules of Miss Juneteenth. But also when you look at the relationship with Turquoise and her mother… Turquoise—and this speaks to what we were saying about which lives matter, she’s not supported necessarily. Once that heyday is over and she’s no longer underneath that crown—which is probably why she harkens back to it.
It feels like she has to do the heavy-lifting kind of alone. The husband is dropping the ball. And that might be another reason, not having anybody to say, ‘You can do this.’
I think about my sister. My sister had a child young and she tells me all the time, there were so many times that she wanted to give up. But she still went to school and finished and now she’s like one of the lead teachers in Georgia. She’s always mentoring and working with young mothers saying, ‘Look, even if nobody else can see your potential, I see it and I’ve been through it. It’s going to be rough but we can do this.’
I feel like that’s who Turquoise is too.
You can watch Miss Juneteenth today on digital platforms and VOD. You can watch the trailer for the film in the video below.