Channing Godfrey Peoples wanted to explore dreams deferred when she wrote Miss Juneteenth. The film, which premiered at Sundance, is a love letter to Blackness and Fort Worth, Texas — a letter that pays homage to the community that inhabits it, and the communities that came before. In her feature film debut, she tells the story of Turquoise (Nicole Beharie), a single mom and former Miss Juneteenth pageant winner, raising a teenage daughter, Kai (Alexis Chikaeze), who she hopes will follow in her footsteps.
Miss Juneteenth is a real pageant held in various Black communities — from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Grambling, Louisiana, but Texas is where the heart of this pageant is because of the state’s history. June 19, 1865, also known as Juneteenth, is the day the last slaves were freed in Galveston, Texas — two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
“We were playing with this whole idea of Juneteenth and Texas slaves finding out they were free two years after everybody else,” Channing tells Teen Vogue. “So we were constantly playing with this theme, like what happens when good things come too late for Turquoise? For Turquoise, it was Juneteenth for her because she won too late. She didn't have the foundation to sustain this win. And so it's like she's going to find her dream later in life. We were constantly playing with those themes. And emotionally, I hope that comes across first.”
Kendrick Sampson, who plays Ronnie, the father of Kai who’s struggling to keep afloat speaks about getting into character for the film. “I saw Ronnie in so many people that I knew and I wanted to honor that,” he says. “That is activism in itself. I wanted to see who would be seen by this character, who would relate to this character, and how I could help liberate them through its portrayal. Then of course, Juneteenth is so important.”
In addition to education on Juneteenth as a holiday and seeing the pageant process teen girls go through to win the crown, the film is also a shining example of the Yee-Haw agenda that highlights the long-held prevalence of Black cowboy culture in Texas.
“I fought for the horses because that was just ... I mean, it's certain things I think can be seen as a spectacle, but I felt like they were just something that I had to have for the environment,” Channing says. “I just thought these elements were important because, in the Black community, all of these things are happening at once. It's not farfetched to see that I have in my community friends who are riding horses and friends who are in the Juneteenth Pageant and the funeral home in the movie are our family friends.”
Ultimately a film about the bond between a mother and her daughter, Miss Juneteenth is given depth by scenes that show the nuance of the Black experience in the South. Having deep discussions while hot combing hair. Cadillacs on hydraulics driving down the road. Fishing trips and pickup trucks. All these elements speak to Channing’s love of the South.
“I grew up in this community and so many of my stories have been centered around it,” Channing says about tapping into her Southern roots to write and direct the film. “During the Civil Rights Movement, you had your Black doctors, Black teachers. It was a bustling community and now it's just being gentrified … but I know that they've held on to it and there's a sense of pride there and that's what I wanted to mimic. I wanted to find that in the film.”
Kendrick believes more stories like Miss Juneteenth should be told not only preserve history but demystify the experience of Black people.
“All the characters are nuanced Black characters, and it shows that even those stories of everyday Black people are worthy of being told,” Kendrick says, “and to be completely frank, being ordinary Black people is still extraordinary because of all of the forces and systems that had been put in place to keep us down and keep us back and hurt us and harm us and abuse our community. So the fact that we're still here, our existence is resistance.”
-Additional reporting by Jameelah Nasheed
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue