Channing Godfrey Peoples' debut feature, Miss Juneteenth, tells the story of Turquoise Jones, a former pageant queen whose life didn't turn out as promised, but who is determined to right her wrongs by grooming her daughter to become the next Miss Juneteenth. Channing's script was a Nicholl Fellowship semifinalist in 2015.
As told to A.frame.
Growing up in Texas, Juneteenth was such a big part of my life. It had this sense of community and joy that you looked forward to, even though we were actually commemorating something very sad: slaves in Texas finding out they were free two-and-a-half years after everyone else. But it also gives us the space to honor our ancestors.
I've always felt a sense of belonging at Juneteenth. The parade, the blues music, the dancing. Somebody's always going to sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” There’s a barbecue. It’s a very affirming cultural experience, and the centerpiece of it is the Miss Juneteenth pageant. That was always the thing I looked forward to the most.
I got a chance to see all these young, beautiful, intelligent African-American women onstage. As a young Black girl in Fort Worth, it gave me a sense of confidence and hope for the future.
I was never a part of Miss Juneteenth, but I'm nostalgic for it and it's clearly something that has stayed with me. All this time later, I'm making a movie about it. I didn't realize what an impact it had until I became an adult.
As a filmmaker, it's important that I try to keep the experience as authentic as possible. We assembled young local African-American actresses and they just dove right in. We had pageant mentors show them how they would be walking, the different formations. Miss Juneteenth is about fortifying young Black women, and it's more about going through the experience of it really than just winning.
I wrote the film around the places and spaces that I grew up in. The bar that you see in the film is the bar that I frequented for much of my life. It's a bar that feels like a home away from home for many people. It's multi-generational and it's one of the centerpieces of the community. The funeral home that you see — I grew up with them. And they just opened their doors and said, "Whatever you need." I'd have one of my very close friends come down and do hair on set. So the community was absolutely integral to my being able to tell the story. It was important for me to get it right.
The people in my community are very resilient and gritty. At the same time, one of the things that I've been able to identify is there's also a sense of hope. And there's a sense of pride.
We filmed in the Historic Southside of Fort Worth, which is a Black community that’s being actively gentrified, but you have this part of it where everything feels lived-in, like everything is slightly past its expiration date. That's how, aesthetically, I conceived of the film. I wanted to apply that to the costume design and the production design, to the cinematography.
We relocated to get the film off the ground, so I've been in Fort Worth quite a while. I feel like it's a full circle to be here on Juneteenth premiering this film. Because of COVID-19, it's not like I'm going to be able to be close to the community to see their reactions to the film. But also, there's a feeling of community just being home. I can walk down the street and someone will holler out and know my name and I'll know theirs.
This moment is bittersweet. We're here 155 years after the dissolution of slavery in this country—155 years from when the last folks found out that they were free in Texas—and Black people literally feel like they don't have the right to breathe.
Juneteenth is the backdrop of this film, but it's important for me, as an artist and as a storyteller, to be able to show these moments so that people get more familiar with Black history in this country, period. I want to continue to tell stories about the Black experience, and I want to continue to tell stories about these historical moments that are not often known.
Like Turquoise, I've absolutely had dreams deferred. These dreams can be reshaped to find some sense of hope at the end of the day. Right around the time we got the green light for Miss Juneteenth, I discovered that I was pregnant. We had a daughter named Zora. Once she was born, not only did that impact the way that I directed the film, it also made my dreams even bigger.
Growing up, I yearned to have stories with women that looked like me. I was even more determined to get this film done because I needed to have something for my daughter that she's able to see when she gets to a certain age. Where she can see women that look like her.
I want equity for my daughter. I look at her right now and there's so much wonder, and curiosity, and sense of discovery, and adventurousness that, as a Black woman in America, I want her to be able to do everything that she wants to do. And I want her to be able to do it 20 times faster than I ever did. Turquoise says this line in the movie, but I never want her to feel less than. I don't want her to be crushed by the inequities of the society that we live in. I wish my daughter could grow up in a world where she's never judged by the color of her skin, but by how amazing she is. That's my hope for the future some day.