Growing up in Fort Worth, Channing Godfrey Peoples was fond of Juneteenth for the parades, the live music and dancing, and the abundant homemade food.
As an adult, she appreciates Juneteenth differently, for its rich sense of community and ancestral commemoration. The rookie filmmaker meshes those memories in Miss Juneteenth, a mother-daughter drama that she filmed on those same Cowtown streets.
One tradition woven into the true-life fabric of the film is the annual Miss Juneteenth pageant, an empowering event she recalls attending every year.
“It gave me an opportunity to go every year and see these young Black women on stage. In addition to them being beautiful and talented, they were also so intelligent and hopeful, and seemed so excited about the future,” Peoples said. “That gave me a sense of confidence, seeing women who looked like me.”
The richly textures movie follows a working-class single mother (Nicole Beharie) and former pageant winner who’s now preparing her teenage daughter (Alexis Chikaeze) to follow in those footsteps — mostly against the youngster’s wishes — while trying to shield her from the duo’s socioeconomic struggles that stem partially from mom’s regrettable choices.
“I wanted to find a way to portray [Juneteenth] thematically in Turquoise’s journey, in finding her own sense of freedom by coming to terms with her past,” Peoples said. “She has this dream deferred but wants something for herself, and also has hopes and dreams for her child to have a better life.
“There’s so much of me in Turquoise, but there’s also my mother, my aunt, and the women I knew growing up in the community who were inspirational to me.”
Chikaeze, who graduated from Allen High School this spring, started acting less than 18 months ago after an injury derailed her career as a high school track star. Miss Juneteenth was her first audition.
As the daughter of Nigerian immigrants, she was drawn both to the film’s cultural significance and to her character dealing with the weight of expectations.
“This role just felt like it was for me. My parents wanted me to become a doctor and go to medical school. If I could only get them to agree that acting was for me, then maybe I could make a difference,” said Chikaeze, who plans to study theater at Howard University this fall. “We don’t learn about this history in school.”
Appropriately enough, the film will open on Friday (which is Juneteenth) in selected theaters — including the Grand Berry Theater in Fort Worth — as well as on digital platforms.
Peoples wrote the screenplay specifically tied to places where she grew up in the neighborhood now known as the Historic Southside. Although the area is gentrifying, links to its bustling blue-collar past can be found family-owned businesses that are passed down through the generations. Peoples wanted to preserve that on screen.
“Authenticity is the most important thing to me as a filmmaker,” she said. “The community has this timeless, lived-in quality. It feels like everything is almost past its expiration date, but they’re still holding on. I wanted to showcase the details of this world that I see with such beauty and such dignity.”
An alumna of Eastern Hills High School, Peoples earned degrees from Baylor and from USC film school. That’s where she met her husband, Neil Creque Williams, who’s a producer on Miss Juneteenth. They bonded over the desire to tell Black Southern stories from a specific cultural perspective.
“My mission is to get more Black women leads in front of the camera. There aren’t as many of those stories that are being greenlit. I had a sense of determination and drive to get this film done because it was so personal. I hope it opens more doors for Black stories to be told.”