As a child, writer and director Channing Godfrey Peoples attended the Miss Juneteenth pageant held each year in Fort Worth, Texas. Seeing beautiful black women celebrated on stage, on the holiday that commemorates when slaves in Texas learned that they had been freed in 1865, left a lasting impression on her.
“It felt like they were floating,” she recalls with a laugh. “It was confidence building. [It] stayed with me.”
Years later, after graduating from the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts and directing several successful short films, she revisited those early memories in her critically acclaimed feature-length film, “Miss Juneteenth.” The film premiered in June, and in a conversation hosted by Barnard’s Athena Film Festival on November 19, Peoples described how “Miss Juneteenth” was inspired by her own experiences as well as the stories of past winners of the pageant.
The film follows fictional beauty queen Turquoise Jones, whose life as a scholarship winner was uprooted after she unexpectedly became pregnant with her daughter Kai. Now a single mother working two jobs to pay the bills, Turquoise is determined to give her daughter the success she wasn’t able to achieve by guiding her to victory in the Miss Juneteenth pageant.
The bittersweet story resonates with audiences because of the film’s details and characters, who are relentlessly human characters and rooted in Peoples’ own experiences living in the Fort Worth community.
“I remembered … the folks in this neighborhood having a sense of determination. They had a grit about them, but they also carried themselves with grace,” she said.
Peoples feels attached to every character in the story, particularly Betty Ray, Turquoise’s supportive and humorous coworker at the local barbecue joint. However, she also finds herself drawn to Turquoise, who, like Peoples’ mom, is a single mother determined to build a new life for herself. Turquoise’s rugged persistence to achieve her dreams is the emotional core of the story. Her scenes are some of the most moving parts of the film.
“She’s so much my mom and my aunts and my grandmothers and myself,” Peoples said. “She’s the women in the community that I grew up around who just kept going.”
Creating authentic characters who represented the community they came from was a central concern throughout the film’s seven-year production process, which meant shooting was done on location at Fort Worth as much as possible.
“Miss Juneteenth” features local businesses that have been passed down through generations of families and are now struggling to stay afloat due to gentrification and economic difficulties; Wayman’s barbecue restaurant and Bacon’s funeral parlor, two main settings in the movie, were actual places Peoples frequented as a child. She also featured local community members as extras in the film. These small details make “Miss Juneteenth” vividly striking as a portrait of the historic neighborhood.
Peoples’ commitment to authenticity and attention to detail has paid off: The film debuted at Sundance to much critical acclaim and has won awards at the SXSW and BlackStar Film Festivals. However, despite this success, Peoples was not satisfied until Fort Worth’s residents were.
“Of course I was nervous about reception, but I wasn’t as nervous [about that] as how the community would perceive it. I wanted them to feel a sense of pride,” she said. “I want people to feel about this community how I felt about it, you know, to have a sense of love for this community.”
Fittingly, one of her happiest memories from the film’s release was its reception at a drive-through screening in the neighborhood.
“People were just … flashing [their] light[s] and honking their horns. People are proud of it,” she said. “I feel great about that because there’s so many reasons why I was inspired to make this film, but a big huge part of that is the community.”
When asked about her future work—including directing episodes of an upcoming HBO series—Peoples was reticent to answer. But ultimately, she’s determined to continue adding a personal touch in her work, exploring themes and characters that are close to her and the communities she loves.
“I want to continue to tell stories about Black women particularly,” she said. “And about that world we haven’t often seen.”