“Miss Juneteenth” tells the story of a Black woman trying to build a better economic future
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It took roughly seven years to make, but for writer-director Channing Godfrey Peoples, “Miss Juneteenth” was personal. The film tells the story of single working mom Turquoise (Nicole Beharie), who is scrambling to build a better life for herself and her teenage daughter, Kai (Alexis Chikaeze). Turquoise urges her daughter to compete in the Miss Juneteenth pageant, an annual scholastic competition that Turquoise won when she was a teen.
Peoples, who grew up in the historically Black neighborhood in Fort Worth, Texas, where “Miss Juneteenth” is set, drew upon her childhood and life experiences to create Turquoise. She spoke to “Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal about the film. The following is a transcript of their conversation, edited for clarity.
Kai Ryssdal: So tell me more about how you came to write this film and where you decided to set it because you are from Fort Worth. It resonates with you clearly on a visceral level, this movie.
Channing Godfrey Peoples: It’s such a personal film. And this is really a vulnerable place to be because Turquoise, the lead character in particular, is based on the women in my life, the women from the community, in my family, many of my own experiences, but most especially my mother. When I was growing up, my mother was single for much of my life. And I just remember, you know, seeing her juggling her own dreams with that of raising children. And that had such a big impact on me, just trying to watch her navigate her own dreams. And you know, this community in particular is so special to me because it was once this bustling Black enclave of Black business and Black commerce. But today, it’s being gentrified.
Ryssdal: This is Fort Worth, your hometown?
Peoples: In Fort Worth, yeah. Fort Worth is actually a major city. But I think in the film, you know, I’ve heard that it feels like a small country town because this particular community is called the historic south side of Fort Worth. And it’s a close-knit Black community, you know, where everybody knows everybody. And I really wanted the film to feel like that.
Ryssdal: We’ve had a lot of conversations on this program in the past year or so about centering Black women in this economy and what that might do for everybody. And it occurred to me as I was watching this film that this film literally has a Black woman at the center, and it is in no small part [that] the through line for this woman is her economic challenges as she tries to go about her life.
Peoples: Absolutely. I think, as a writer-director, really, my approach is authenticity first. I would see my mom work several jobs, and then [I] became an adult woman where I did this thing, you know, in an attempt to keep my dreams afloat. And later, I became a mother, and that opened a whole different world, you know, in which I had to navigate my own dreams. You see Turquoise working at the bar, you see her moonlighting in a job doing makeup at a funeral home — I’m giving away the plot here!
Ryssdal: That’s all right. It’s gonna make people want to go see it.
Peoples: But it’s an important part of the journey. And you know, for Turquoise, she’s there reconciling her own dreams, but a big part of it is making sure that her daughter has the future that she feels slipped through her hands.
Ryssdal: Yeah. There’s another part of this film that is a little bit tangential, and that is just the overall theme of ownership and having ownership. There’s a little soliloquy that [one of] the characters gives about owning things. And I wonder what that meant to you, as you were writing it?
Peoples: Yeah, I mean, it’s coming out of my mouth. But I also feel like, at some point, I get to know the characters so well, [and] this will sound weird, but they start speaking for themselves. And there is this idea of what ownership means and what legacy means. These businesses that you see in the film, just like the bar and the funeral home, they’re businesses that are being passed down through generations. People are saying we want to hold on to these businesses, this is our own sense of ownership. You know, they’re making a choice to stay in the community even though they could be bought out and move on. I think there’s a small part of me, as well, that’s a preservationist because this community in particular, I’ve been shooting there for years. I went to the University of Southern California, and I went back to Texas to shoot my thesis film, and the main business that I used in that film was a bar. It’s now like a craft beer company. It’s gone away in that short time. So I think a part of me is trying to hold on as well.
Ryssdal: Look, this film has been at Sundance, it’s gotten all kinds of buzz. There’s more coming for you, for sure. Are you “made” now in the film world?
Peoples: I don’t know what that means! I don’t know what that means! You know, I didn’t know I wanted to be a filmmaker early on. That came to me as an adult. I really got interested in storytelling because my mom would take us to a small community theater in that very neighborhood. I later really got into literature that centered Black women by Toni Morrison and Alice Walker and Gloria Naylor. And so those were the pictures that I had in my head. And I would later come to see that there just weren’t enough films that centered Black women. And that’s why these are the stories that I want to continue to tell. So I don’t know what “made” means at the end of the day, Kai, but I want to continue to tell my stories. That’s what I want to do.
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