The Juneteenth holiday celebrates June 19th, 1865, the day enslaved Texans finally received the message of the Emancipation Proclamation — more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the executive order that put an end to slavery in America. It’s a holiday that has been brought to the fore in recent weeks following the gruesome killing of George Floyd and protests and movements that strive to dismantle systemic racism in this country.
Long before organizations set aside Juneteeth as a paid holiday and Donald Trump’s claim that he made the day “famous,” Texas natives like Miss Juneteenth helmer Channing Godfrey Peoples have partaken in annual traditions that commemorate the holiday, from parades to cookouts, church services and other community gatherings.
“Juneteenth, for me, was something that I looked forward to every year as a kid,” said the director, who is making her feature debut with Miss Juneteenth, which is out on VOD today. “I remember looking forward to it because I knew I was going to see the parade and there was going to be blues music and dance, and we were going to eat barbecue, and I was going to see folks I hadn’t seen in a long time. But what I most looked forward to, I remember, was the Miss Juneteenth Pageant. I looked forward to that because as a young black girl growing up in Fort Worth, Texas I got to see all of these really, really beautiful black women on stage who were being celebrated for their talent, and abilities, and intelligence, and I was right there celebrating with them.”
In her new film, which comes on the 155th anniversary of the holiday, Peoples highlights the Miss Juneteenth pageant as the backdrop to a story about a mother who makes every effort to provide the best life for her child. The film stars Nicole Baharie as former beauty queen Turquoise Jones, now a hardworking single mom preparing her rebellious teenage daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) for the pageant, hoping to keep her from repeating the same mistakes in life that she made.
“Thinking thematically about Juneteenth and my approach to telling this story, I really wanted to portray, in Turquoise’s journey, she’s finding her own sense of freedom, in a way, by coming to terms with her past and finding a new way to reshape her dream later in life,” Peoples said.
For Peoples, the film couldn’t have come at a better time, with people taking to the streets demanding equality and civil justice. For her, while Juneteeth is undoubtedly a time for celebration, it’s also been a time to reflect.
“I’m spending this time reflecting on my ancestors who were enslaved in the first place, and then their freedom was kept hidden from them,” she said. “So it’s just a reflective moment for me, especially to be putting this story to the world during this moment, I mean these are my ancestors and I want to make them proud.”
Peoples spoke with Deadline about the timeless of her new film, the significance behind the Miss Juneteenth pageant, and her hope that black voices will continue to be amplified.
DEADLINE: First of all, I have to ask you, with everything going on in this world, how are you doing?
CHANNING GODFREY PEOPLES: It’s interesting because it’s such a bittersweet time for the film to be coming out. There’s obviously excitement about getting this film into the world, a film that I’ve been working on personally for so long, but it’s just constant reminders of where we are as black folks and what we’re navigating right now, and that’s merely our survival. It’s the bitter with the sweet right now. I’m spending quite a bit of time in reflection, and at least glad to be getting a story out into the world about the humanity of black folks and hope that it opens the doors for more stories to be made.
DEADLINE: I don’t know if you remember but we actually spoke at Sundance when the film premiered… you spoke about how this project was so personal to you, so I’d just like to start from there and talk about the journey that you had with this.
PEOPLES: It’s absolutely personal because Juneteenth, for me, was something that I looked forward to every year as a kid. I remember looking forward to it because I knew I was going to see the parade and there was going to be blues music and dance, and we were going to eat barbecue, and I was going to see folks I hadn’t seen in a long time. Now, as an adult, I was yearning for that communal connection, that sense of community being able to connect every year. But what I most looked forward to, I remember, was the Miss Juneteenth Pageant. I looked forward to that because as a young black girl growing up in Fort Worth, Texas, I got to see all of these really, really beautiful black women on stage who were being celebrated for their talent, and abilities, and intelligence, and I was right there celebrating with them. What I remember most and was most poignant for me was the hope and excitement that I saw on their faces. It made me hopeful and excited. Now I realize, as an adult, how affirming that was for me and it was confidence building for a young black girl.
DEADLINE: Beyond the storyline of the beauty pageant, and also the historical context with Juneteenth, all that comes with the story of Turquoise and her daughter and their relationship. What specifically inspired that story from the film?
PEOPLES: Growing up in the community, which I’m from a bigger city, but the black community in which I wrote the film around and shot the film, is a really close-knit African American community. I knew where a lot of the Miss Juneteenths went just from being in the community, but I always wondered what happened to the ones that we didn’t know about. So when I started conceiving this story, I wanted to tell this story about a black woman with a dream deferred, and a black woman that knows that she just wants something for herself even though she may not be able to articulate at the moment. She has these hopes and dreams for her child and she also has these hopes for her child to have a better life. As a writer and as a filmmaker, I tend to write about family cycles and what we leave behind and what we decide to move forward with. Also in my work, I definitely write about black women who are taking a step forward in their lives, and I love writing about their journeys, and I come from that unique perspective as a black woman having grown up in this country, and especially in, what I call, black Texas. Actually, I took that from another writer who said this is black Texas, and I thought that was incredible. So I’ve taken that and now I say I understand that I was raised in black Texas.
I love mother-daughter stories and I’m a recent mother myself, and so I felt like I had a unique perspective that I could bring to this story.
DEADLINE: This was your feature directorial debut. Can you describe your experience with making this film?
PEOPLES: It came with challenges, but as a filmmaker, I came to the craft in a nontraditional way. My journey started as a young girl going to community theatre. There was a small community theatre in my hometown called Sojourner Truth, and so I got to see these amazing plays by black folks like Purlie, and For Colored Girls and all these different incredible works. I then just threw myself into literature and read the greats, just like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Dr. Maya Angelou, and Gloria Naylor, all those women who were writing these books with these just wonderful, incredible, deep perspectives. I would just imagine in my head, visually, what these books would look like… I later went to USC Film School and got my MSA in cinema. So I was able to take really the structure of being able to tell a story from USC and apply it to the stories that really I always had in my heart.
DEADLINE: Within the last few weeks, we’ve seen this surge of awareness when it comes to June 19th and what it stands for. Even organizations like Twitter, the NFL, Nike, they’ve put it out that they’re going to observe this day as a paid holiday, and now it’s getting sort of this national attention. What does this moment mean for you?
PEOPLES: People are really taking the time to reflect. We’re reflecting on what it is to black in America, and some of our stories, people are seeing them for the first time. In particular, commemorating Juneteenth is about, for black folks, our ancestors, who were slaves in Texas, finally getting their freedom. Sadly that was two-and-a-half years after everybody else. Thinking thematically about Juneteenth and my approach to telling this story, I really wanted to portray, in Turquoise’s journey, she’s finding her own sense of freedom, in a way, by coming to terms with her past and finding a new way to reshape her dream later in life. So I think that we’re at a time that I very much hope that we’re listening to these stories from black folks and we’re able to continue to listen and these voices are being amplified from the community, from media, from artists, and there are some changes and lasting sustainable changes.
DEADLINE: Talk about the timeliness of this film. We’re in a time of protests, there are people coming out to speak about racial injustices, speak about police brutality, and then this film is coming out, and it’s actually coming on the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth, which is even more special. I don’t know how much control one has when your film gets picked up and gets distribution, but were you always hoping that your film be released on June 19?
PEOPLES: It’s very special that it is. I think as an independent filmmaker, making this film that was just definitely a passion project, and myself and my husband, Neil Creque Williams, who was a producer on the film. We met in film school and we’re just pushing the film up the hill to get it done no matter what. We’re at such an interesting moment because, as you’ve highlighted, we’re here 155 years after the dissolution of slavery for black people in Texas. Actually, the dissolution of slavery was during the Emancipation Proclamation. One hundred and fifty-five years is since the Texas folks found out, and there were people from other states moving their slaves into Texas. It was hidden from them, their freedom. And here we are still grappling with the idea that black people don’t even have the freedom to breathe. We don’t have the freedom to walk down the street. We don’t have the freedom to be in our home, to be honest. It wasn’t long after we shot the film in Fort Worth, Texas, that there was a woman who was killed by a police officer in her home, Atatiana Jefferson. So it’s an interesting time for the film to be going out into the world. But as a black person, you’re constantly fully aware of everything that is happening right now and all of the tragedies that are happening right now, and it really weighs on you psychologically.
DEADLINE: I have to ask because it is relevant to the conversation, but recently Donald Trump announced he would be holding a rally June 19 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which many took issue with for many reasons, especially for those who know the history of Tulsa and the Tulsa massacre. He’s since moved it to the 20th but will continue on with plans to have it in Tulsa. With all that’s happening, in the midst of the protests and people calling out for equal rights and freedoms, what was your initial reaction when you heard this news?
PEOPLES: Given his history, I was not surprised. I was not surprised at all. It was disheartening and I think absolutely blatantly ignored the history of what Juneteenth is to just ignore what happened in Tulsa. I thought it was blatant and I thought it was ignorant, to be honest, especially in a moment where we are in this country in which black voices are gratefully being amplified, and black stories are being told. I think that we’re in a moment that I’m hoping that people are more eager about learning about these moments in black history because it’s a shame that there’s so little known.
DEADLINE: As the nation becomes more aware of Juneteenth, what would you say for people who want to celebrate and honor this holiday? What are other ways that people can observe this holiday?
PEOPLES: There are celebrations, or commemorations, happening in other parts of the nation. It’s started to catch on, especially more recently even before companies were jumping on board. People were having their own Miss Juneteenth pageants or celebrating in so many other places. It’s celebrated, I think, in around 45 states [Currently, 47 of 50 U.S. states and D.C recognize Juneteenth]. People are on social media reaching out all the time talking about the ways that they celebrate Juneteenth and what it means to them.
So I would say that there’s a lot of excitement around Juneteenth and what it is right now. I would tell people to look at the traditions of the ways in which Juneteenth has been commemorated and find their own way to commemorate it. As a kid, it was all about the parades and the pomp and circumstance, but I’m spending this time reflecting on my ancestors who were enslaved in the first place, and then their freedom was kept hidden from them. So it’s just a reflective moment for me, especially to be putting this story to the world during this moment, I mean these are my ancestors and I want to make them proud. I want to make this community, in which I shot the film, proud. There’s a big responsibility, I feel like, right now being an artist.
DEADLINE: As a filmmaker of color how important is it for you to highlight your culture through your storytelling, or better yet, where does it all start for you, in terms of shaping the narratives you want to tell?
PEOPLES: It’s vital. That’s who I am as a human being, as an artist. My stories are mostly about black women taking a step forward in their lives and showcasing black women on their journeys. A big part of that is creating stories that have historical context and highlight these cultural moments. Culture is just through and through everything to me, and authenticity for me is another huge one. I need to be able to show things as authentically as possible, and that’s why I shot this film in the community in which I grew up where Juneteenth was so important, so culture really is everything.
DEADLINE: What was the biggest challenge in your filmmaking journey and how were you able to overcome it?
PEOPLES: It’s interesting because I was so determined to tell stories about black women and their lives, and to be able to approach it from this really specific perspective as a black woman having growing up in America, and in Texas specifically. So for me, the challenge was always you create a story like this and you hear things like — and I was also highlighting a community that’s not often seen — so you hear things like “Oh, this story is narrow.” It’s not. I feel like this story has some universal themes that people can connect to, and I’ve seen people connect to. I saw people connect to at Sundance, and so I think that stories about black folks, and especially the kind of stories I’m telling about black women, are entirely accessible, and I don’t think that they’re just narrow.
Part of my mission as a human being and as an artist is to get more stories about black women into the world, and I’m going to continue to fight for that. When I say that I’ve heard people say it’s narrow, it’s not a film with high stakes…but to a black person living in America, the idea of survival is everything, your child’s survival, and that’s what Turquoise wants for her own child. That’s what I want for my child, to be honest. And I’ll continue to tell those stories no matter what.
DEADLINE: What do you hope people take away when they see your film?
PEOPLES: It’s been such an interesting time for the film to coming out into the world. I hope right now that the film can give people a bit of hope. I feel such a sense of responsibility to tell our stories. I love black folks, and that translates to my work, and so at the end of the day, especially now, I hope we find a little hope and maybe some joy.