Fort Worth native Channing Godfrey Peoples is debuting her first feature film, Miss Juneteenth, next week on — you guessed it — June 19. It’s been a labor of love several years in the making for Peoples, who wrote and directed the picture.
Now set to be released amid one of the largest racial protest movements in recent history, it’s also taken on an added weight.
“I think she has a knack for wanting to tell stories about people in places that some people may dismiss,” says her husband, Neil Creque Williams, who was also a producer on the film. “Her films ask the larger question of whose story gets to be told.”
After premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Miss Juneteenth won the Louis Black Lone Star Award for Best Texan Film at South by Southwest this year. Filming took place entirely in Fort Worth in the summer of 2019, in the Southside neighborhood where Peoples grew up, and in Como, a historically African American neighborhood west of the city center. The team behind the film is homegrown, too. North Texan filmmakers David Lowery, Toby Halbrooks and James M. Johnston, members of the production group Sailor Bear, fill out the movie’s credits along with financier Tim Headington.
It wasn’t the first time Peoples shot in Texas. The thesis film she directed as part of her studies at the University of South Carolina’s School of Cinematic Arts, Red, was filmed in her hometown, too. No matter how far she has traveled, her heartstrings tugged her back to the Lone Star State. Peoples began working on Miss Juneteenth after graduating in 2011. It went through several workshops on its way to the screen.
This story has always been a part of her. She grew up attending Miss Juneteenth pageants in Fort Worth.
“One of the things that has always been super special to me about Juneteenth every year is the Miss Juneteenth pageant,” Peoples says. “I got to see young African American women who have all this hope and promise. For me as a kid, that’s what I could imagine being. Hopeful. That was a defining moment for me.”
Juneteenth recognizes the day Texas slaves learned they were free. It came on June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers landed in Galveston and delivered the news, two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed. Although it isn’t a national holiday, most U.S. states, including Texas, recognize the day in some capacity.
“I am a descendent of those slaves,“ Peoples wrote in an email. ”There is a beauty in the way we commemorate and remember our ancestors by celebrating Juneteenth. The centerpiece of it is the Miss Juneteenth pageant, created to acknowledge young African American women who are the descendents of slaves.”
The Juneteenth pageants celebrate the day, often by giving young African American women the chance to compete for college scholarships. More than a beauty contest, it’s a beacon of hope for contestants and their families.
That’s what we see in the movie. Its story centers around a mother, Turquoise, played by Nicole Beharie, who works several jobs to provide for her teenage daughter, Kai, played by Alexis Chikaeze.
Beharie has starred in films such as the 2008 drama American Violet and the TV series Sleepy Hollow, plus she’s made appearances on the series Bones and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. This is Dallas-born Chikaeze’s film debut.
Turquoise is a former Miss Juneteenth winner, and although her life didn’t turn out as she might have hoped, she wants the best for her daughter: a Miss Juneteenth win and scholarship to a historically black college.
“In my work I tend to look at family cycles,” Peoples says. “What we pay and what we leave behind and pass forward. That’s always so important to me.”
The film touches on several other themes: women in society, motherhood, community and African American citizens’ struggles to own property.
Its character leads are all black, a rare occurrence in the movie world. “Part of my mission statement as a filmmaker is to get more African Americans in lead roles. I think it’s time and deserving.”
“I’m telling stories from my perspective, and those are the stories I want to tell,” she says.
The movie arrives on major streaming platforms on June 19. The Grand Berry Theater in Fort Worth is set to show it in-person, while other theaters have virtual showtimes scheduled. Check movie theater websites for the most current information about showtimes.
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