Juneteenth may have only been introduced into your lexicon this year, but the 19th June (also known as Freedom Day) marks the emancipation of slaves in the United States, dating back to 1865. Originating in Texas, Juneteenth is now a nationwide holiday and a pivotal moment in Black history.
It’s a celebration close to the heart of writer and director Channing Godfrey Peoples. Growing up in Fort Worth, Texas, Peoples participated in the annual Miss Juneteenth pageant, a beauty contest created as a way to educate young Black women aged 15 – 18. Despite being a competition that requires a scrupulous appearance, the mastery of etiquette and talent perfection, it’s become an event that empowers the community, offering a life-changing college scholarship for the lucky winner each year.
In Peoples’ debut, semi-autobiographical tale, aptly named Miss Juneteenth, we follow the story of young mother Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie) and her 14-year-old daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze).
In 2004, Turquoise competed in the Miss Juneteenth pageant, won the title and believed her life and opportunities would change for the better. Fast forward over a decade and the former beauty queen, now single mother, is working multiple jobs, cleaning toilets and scrubbing tables for tips. Adamant that her rebellious daughter Kai will have a better life, she convinces her to enter the same pageant in the hope of winning a college scholarship to “any historically black institution”.
The intergenerational narrative that follows is a relatable mother/daughter relationship packed with bickering, bad boyfriends and moments of self-discovery.
For her debut feature film, Peoples wanted to showcase the strength of African-American women. “Through exploring issues unique to Black women and our identity and culture, my hope is the film will be a universal story about the resilience of the human condition,” she says.
The casting couldn’t be more on point. Kai is played by Texan and three time former beauty pageant contestant, Alexis Chikaeze. Currently studying Theatre Arts at Howard University, Miss Juneteenth, remarkably, was Chikaeze’s first audition.
The 18-year-old is an absolute natural on screen and she already has a strong vision for the roles she wants to play. “I love having the ability to make a difference,” she says. “I want young Black girls to see representations of themselves in film and television, things I didn’t get to see and we’re just now starting to see.”
Chikaeze has always been ambitious: she spent school summers competing, running track and initially made plans to venture off to medical school. “Both of them fell through and I am happy about that for good reason,” she continues. “We need Black doctors, but that wasn’t my calling!” Fortunately, acting was.
Tell us about your character…
Kai is described as rebellious. I wouldn’t call her that because she is a respectful girl but in terms of her chasing her dreams, she may be a little bit more reckless in her decisions. She wants to be independent and she’s fighting for that. She wants her mum Turquoise to see that she has control over her life as well.
It was shot in Fort Worth, Texas and I’m from Dallas, Texas, so stepping into her life wasn’t that hard because to an extent I had lived her life. I had talked my parents into something, had to find my independence and who I was as a Black girl, growing up in the South. It was interesting to tap into my life through a different perspective.
What was it about Kai that really resonated with you?
As Black girls, it’s very easy to get caught up in the worry that “this is what society thinks of me”. It’s not our fault, it’s obviously systemic and it’s out of our control. I felt that Kai is trying to find her path in the world as a Black woman and she is trying to embrace who she is. That’s what made me so happy about the film.
It was important to show Kai with her natural hair. I never wear my natural hair like that, it was always in protective styles as I wasn’t ready to deal with it, but that’s a part of who we are.
I want other little Black girls to grow up and not see things the way I saw things or think my hair needs to be straight or my skin isn’t good enough. I wanted to make sure I got across that you’re beautiful the way you are and society standards do not define you. Whatever you put your mind to, you can achieve that.
How did you prepare for the role?
One thing that I found myself doing with Nicole [Beharie] was watching her mannerisms, because they were so elegant and slight but they had so much power. Her game is top of the line, so it made me want to do better. Every way that I can I’m watching the things that she’s doing, the way her eyes follow me and what I’m doing… it was incredible. I wanted to do things to the best of my ability with the little acting experience that I had.
Were you already familiar with the celebration of Juneteenth?
In the school system as a whole, Black history is not taught enough. Even though we are in Texas, and this was the first place to declare Juneteenth as a holiday, we didn’t learn about it that much, maybe once. Being on the film, with people feeding you information, it was a learning experience. I’ve learnt more about Black history in the last six months than I have my whole life. In every way, Black people are still fighting for their freedom, in the workforce, in society. We are still trying to build ourselves in the community.
The movie, in a way, gave us some liberation because Turquoise wanted more for herself, so it was really important to me that I got to do something with that message and especially in the time we’re in right now. When Juneteenth came, we felt more empowered this year.
Would you ever enter the Miss Juneteenth beauty pageant?
I actually did pageants growing up! Toddlers and Tiaras was really where it started.
What! How old were you?
The first one I was eight, then I did one at 12 and the last at 14. The same age Kai was. Full circle!
How did you find that experience?
It is rigorous in real life, you’re rehearsing and after spending all that money if you don’t win you feel bad. That’s where I first found my love for acting. I would do it as my talent or read a monologue. Obviously I’m grateful as it shaped me and built my confidence.
My parents stopped me after three as it was too much stress. The first time I competed, I had my natural hair with these little curls and I saw the other girls and they had their straight hair. So I turned to my mum and said, “they must be looking at me funny.” I was paranoid they thought, who is this Black girl and why did she come to the pageant with her hair this way? I did pageants with white girls primarily, so it was very important to prove that Black girls can do pageants and they can do them well if they are given the spotlight.
I love the fact that this is explored in the movie because it allows young girls to see that Black is beautiful. However you speak, whatever you do, do it to the best of your abilities and don’t be afraid of the consequences.
Why is it important for people to go and see Miss Juneteenth?
People need to take more time to learn about Black culture and history. As we’ve seen, people don’t know a lot of things [about the Black experience]. The way our counterparts struggle, we struggle. It’s systemic, we’ve been battered down by the systems and it’s harder for us to get out of those chains because America wasn’t built for us. Even though Black people built it. There is so much richness in our culture and diversity in this world, so I hope people take responsibility to discover this for themselves.
Miss Juneteenth is out now in selected cinemas