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Interview: Actress Nicole Beharie Unpacks ‘Miss Juneteenth’

Channing Godfrey Peoples’ film Miss Juneteenth started its journey with its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. Since then, the coming of age story has been steadily gaining traction throughout the festival circuit and the awards race. At the film’s centerpiece is a powerful performance by its star Nicole Beharie

Juneteenth marks the celebration of the end of slavery, which dates back to 1865, when the last of those who were enslaved were freed in Galveston, Texas. In Miss Juneteenth, we see the characters grapple with what it means to be truly free in a society where systemic inequality exists. 

Nicole Beharie in “Miss Juneteenth”

Beharie, off the heels of her Gotham win for Best Actress, deserves all of the praise for her nuanced portrayal of Turquoise, a single mother who’s struggling to provide the best life possible for her 14-year-old daughter Kai. 

A former Miss Juneteenth pageant queen, Turquoise, pushes her daughter (Alexis Chikaeze) to follow in her footsteps, hoping that Kai’s path will be a bit easier than her own. The Miss Juneteenth pageant is considered to be a significant marker of success in the small Black community of Fort Worth, Texas, as the winner is granted a scholarship to a historically Black college of her choice. While Turquoise sees an opportunity, her daughter Kai, feels stifled by the rigid rules and the creative oppression. 

Informed by director-writer Channing Godfrey Peoples’ personal story, Beharie shines as Turquoise, whose story of survival lives in many women but feels intimate and singular. This touching mother-daughter love story follows these two women as they navigate their own desires and personal crossroads. Turquoise’s questioning of her own needs and wants is one that happens slowly over the course of the film, and it’s magnificent to watch Beharie embody a woman coming into her own without it being propped up by a romantic love story. Instead, Turquoise learns from her daughter that you can succeed without fitting into a box and that your worth is unlocked by leaning into your own agency.

The actress spoke to Awards Radar about the awards race and her star turning performance in Miss Juneteenth.  

Niki Cruz: You just won Best Actress at the Gotham Awards. That must have felt great. 

Nicole Beharie: It was amazing! I’m so appreciative of them. They really champion independent films and filmmakers, and I’m really honored that they even saw our movie. I was just excited to go to the party, but it ended up being a really beautiful night of tributes. From Jeffrey Wright, who I did a play with on Broadway, to Viola Davis, who I just love with everything, and then there was one right before they called out the award, to Chadwick Boseman, where his widow [Taylor Simone Ledward] spoke. 

NC: I heard that was very touching.

NB: It was so moving. It completely gutted me, so by the time they came around and announced the winner for our category — first of all, just based on the calculations and the way that things worked, I was like there’s no way. I didn’t think I would win, or our movie would win, and I was also swept up in all the beautiful things Taylor [Simone Ledward] had said before. Then, we had technical difficulties where I didn’t even hear them say my name, so it was a very interesting, bittersweet night, but it’s definitely amazing to be acknowledged. I’ve always been someone who’s kind of mystified by acting for sport… It’s so personal the way people absorb a performance or what they like about a movie or what they relate to, so it’s so interesting to be a part of this right now. I certainly hadn’t imagined it. 

NC: So much of the awards trajectory is about attending these events in person, meeting journalists, going to press days. How has this journey been for you during a time where everything is online?

NB: I don’t know because I’ve never done this before. I don’t know what’s different. People have been asking [director] Channing Godfrey Peoples what is it like having your film come out during Corona, and she’s said, “It’s my first film; it’s the only experience I know.” So, for me, I’ve obviously been to award ceremonies and things, but I don’t really know any other way. And of course, I miss human interaction and that energy but — and I’m sure you feel this way, too  — sometimes it’s nice to just be on the couch or at the kitchen table. (Laughs) I’m just trying to find the silver lining and some of this stuff; it’s just, it’s definitely different, but I also feel like I get to speak with more people. 

Maybe because of the time when our film was released, there weren’t many films coming out because people were holding the big summer blockbusters, and we probably got more eyes on the movie because of these limitations. Streaming is actually more democratic in a way. Anyone can pay a few dollars and watch the movie versus us having a very limited release and only a few theaters.

NC: This film came out at a really interesting time culturally. America is having a reckoning around race and inequality, and many people just learned about Juneteenth. 

NB:  As far as when the movie came out again, it’s a bittersweet and strange feeling, because it’s the first time I think to my knowledge and in my lifetime that people are talking about Juneteenth, but it was because Trump said that he had introduced it to the world. We were in the middle of, like you said, a reckoning following the murders of black men and women, of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, (and many others), and people are at their wit’s end about being technically free and owning all the rights to citizenship, but not really feeling it, not feeling safe, not feeling the justice and seeing imbalance in where money is spent economically. So all those things are happening in our movie. To be on a poster as Miss Juneteenth with a crooked crown during that time is super meta. 

I’m honored, though, that our director, Channing Godfrey Peoples, was channeling whatever kind of magic because she has been working on this for years. Who would’ve ever thought when we shot this movie in 2019, a year later, people would be talking about Juneteenth? My hope now is, if nothing else, we could have this conversation on the national stage about making Juneteenth a national holiday. I don’t think we have anything that commemorates a huge part of the economic foundation and the structures that are the history of this country.

NC: Can you talk about unpacking the character of Turquoise and those initial conversations with Channing?

NB: It was more about how I connected with the script and then [the experience of] going down to Texas because it was so specific. One of the treats [is] Channing’s work is so personal to her. This was specific to this particular community, and anyone who lives in the United States knows this massive portion of the continent is like a bunch of little countries in one. There are different dialects, different food, culture, and different religions. 

Even down to the placement of Turquoise’s voice, in the way that I thought the dialect was going to be, how people move their jaws, or whether it’s more nasal.. it’s so specific, and Channing really wanted that [and] these stories deserve that… I’m noticing more that we’re getting away from that sort of just general blackness and leaning into the specificity of the diaspora, whether you’re in England or you’re a West Indian immigrant or African immigrant, and that’s something I’m super excited to be a part of.

NC: We see Turquoise be everything to everyone, and at the end of the day, her needs arent being met. Its nice to see a woman recognize what her needs are in relation to success and how she moves through the world.

NB: Yeah, I loved that. I mean, we all love “a love story,” right? It’s so funny, my aunt the other day said, “So what happened at the end? Did she get the guy with the horse at the end? And I was like, “No! She’s chosen herself; she’s gonna have a business. I’m sure she’ll meet someone nice one day, maybe not?” It’s a different kind of love story. This love story is actually about a woman and her daughter [and] maybe she’s learning how to fully accept and love herself, and seeing what she contributes. 

NC: You mention the mother and daughter love story, and its incredibly powerful to see on screen. Can you speak about that dynamic? 

NB: You were just talking about women, and we just saw in Georgia these women organize and pull the community together to change the red state to blue and making things happen in the world. Even before that happened, we know that’s what our communities are made up of. There are women keeping everything afloat…and they may not get celebrated. So that was one of the reasons I wanted to do it. Being raised by a single mother who was a nurse practitioner, who was struggling at the punch. Now she’s a doctor and a professor, but seeing the sacrifices that she had to make and then sometimes not being able to provide certain things that she may have wanted to provide…It was easy to fall in love with Kai because I kind of know that frustration and that sort of box someone is putting you in. 

Working with Alexis Chikaeze, the actress who plays Kai, this was her first time acting, and she showed up ready to go. I think just wanting to see her succeed was perfect. [I felt like I could] help make this more comfortable and fun and connect with her as much as possible to make this real. I think having that intention creates a kind of bond in the moment. 

NC: The poem Phenomenal Woman is featured in this film. What does that poem mean to you now after filming Miss Juneteenth?

NB: I’ve always loved that poem. Turquoise’s journey and thinking that she has to be one thing, that her life is going to be a certain way, and the next thing you know, she discovered that she could be an owner and lean into her agency. Looking at Maya Angelou’s life when she started, she was an actress, a singer, and a dancer, right? It wasn’t until the second half of her life that she started writing. That’s the journey of what this life can be… It’s such a beautiful manifesto for any woman, to be honest. If you’re ever feeling a little uncertain, that [poem] will get you right.

Miss Juneteenth is currently available on VOD.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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Written by Niki Cruz

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