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Watch the trailer for 'Miss Juneteenth'
Nicole Beharie has become an awards contender for her stunning turn in Channing Godfrey Peoples' feature debut.
One year ago last weekend, Miss Juneteenth premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. In the 12 months and a few days since then, the film has had a wild ride: First it shifted to a digital release for a certain ongoing pandemic, then came out on Juneteenth itself (serendipitously, a release-friendly Friday) amid the most urgent, most nationally prominent movement for racial justice in recent memory.
Seven months later, star Nicole Beharie took home the Gotham Award for Best Actress, and the film itself collected four Independent Spirit Award nominations (including for Beharie) — notable accolades for a low-budget, small-scale festival indie from a first-time feature filmmaker, Channing Godfrey Peoples. Beharie, now a contender for major awards, can hardly believe the journey.
"I'm still like, did that just happen?" she tells EW a few days after her Gotham win. "This movie was a labor of love, grassroots-made, Texas local. I think we all went down there not expecting any fanfare, any awards, any acknowledgment, [not knowing] what kind of viewership we were going to get."
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Beharie stars as Turquoise, a single mom in Fort Worth, Texas, trying to guide her teenage daughter, Kai (newcomer Alexis Chikaeze), to compete in the Miss Juneteenth pageant, which Turquoise herself won years before, only to see her beauty-queen dreams slip through her fingers — much to her own mother's chagrin.
"I thought it was really beautiful," Beharie says of the multigenerational tale of a dream deferred. "And the script and the story just lightly touch on all these themes without being heavy-handed: There's Juneteenth, Emancipation Proclamation, social hierarchies, gender politics, self-empowerment, beauty vs. scholastic [achievement] — all these different things happening, and you can miss it if you don't pick up on the little bits and pieces."
The same can be said for Turquoise herself, a character of great complexity whose joys and disappointments Beharie wears devastatingly on her face. "I was really, really looking for a lead actor that could bring this sense of nuance to the role," Peoples tells EW. "And [Beharie] does so much with just a look."
That sense of quiet expressiveness drew the actress to Turquoise in the first place. Even in her own life, Beharie says, she likes to look away from people standing center stage to those taking them in: "Sometimes that's actually way more interesting, all the little opinions when people don't think they're being watched or they think that they're not so important in this moment," she says. "This is a moment where the camera turns on to someone who's normally kind of ignored."
Peoples' camera also takes in quiet moments that might typically be overlooked; Beharie recalls the scene pictured above, where Turquoise sits alone on her front porch in her lopsided tiara. "I've never had a moment of the camera just letting you think, and the director trusting you to just process," she says. "That was such a gift."
But there were additional factors that helped set that lingering pace. Early in production, Beharie sprained her ankle, so the cowboy boots she wears for much of the film are "not really a fashion choice," she says with a laugh. On an indie budget and schedule, the production couldn't shut down and wait for its star to recover, so the injury demanded concealing footwear — but it also slowed her down a bit. "I had to turn it into a choice," the actress says. "It was like, actually, we've got to lean into this. So there's a little bit more sway, out of necessity. It's surprising to me that you can use something that is literally an impediment and turn it into a piece of the work. Sometimes things are serendipitous."
It wasn't serendipity so much as a "bittersweet" coincidence that the film ended up having its release at such a moment as last year's Juneteenth, a holiday that received greater recognition than ever in 2020 amid the widespread protests for Black lives and a national conversation about systemic racial injustice. "Some of the themes in the film — because of Channing's magic, or whatever she downloaded from the heavens when she decided to do this — ended up landing right in the zeitgeist," Beharie observes.
"It's a distinct honor to be in the title, or on this poster for a film that says Miss Juneteenth, knowing that this holiday commemorates the end of slavery in the U.S.," the actress continues. "Making it a national holiday, I think, should be a goal. As we think about creating a really strong future and what we can be in the future, you have to acknowledge the past in order to do that — sort of similar to the conversation in the movie about what your legacy is, and what you're creating. So that was another thing that drew me to it."
At the heart of Miss Juneteenth — a movie about a beauty pageant tied to a celebration of the end of a horror — is the idea of finding grace amid pain. And in playing Turquoise, whose life could potentially be characterized only by struggle and disappointment, Beharie found that "it's kind of liberating to be able to be soft despite a harsh environment, and to be expressive with your sensitivities," she says. "If the world is a little like sandpaper, it's actually a very courageous act."
(Video courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)