*This piece was originally published in June 2020
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The South has something to say, and in new indie film Miss Juneteenth, that message rings loud and clear for all to hear: Liberation requires constant reimagining.
The feature film debut of Texan screenwriter and filmmaker Channing Godfrey Peoples, Miss Juneteenth grounds itself in the often unexplored setting of the South. Its story is tethered to Turquoise Jones (played by the criminally underrated Nicole Beharie), a former beauty queen who struggles to make ends meet years after being crowned her town's Miss Juneteenth. Turquoise's dream of making a name for herself outside of the city limits of Fort Worth following her reign is deferred, and she finds herself right back where she started.
Rather than being swallowed whole by her disappointment, Turquoise channels all of her energy into preparing her daughter, Kai (Alexis Chikaeze), for her own run in the local Miss Juneteenth pageant. Kai has plans of her own where her future is considered — and the pageant isn't her idea of a way out — so the mother-daughter duo constantly clash over their misaligned imaginations for tomorrow. Turquoise's contentious relationship with her estranged husband, Ronnie (Insecure's Kendrick Sampson), further complicates the family dynamic and threatens her hopes of finally being able to do life on her own terms.
Miss Juneteenth is a poignant story of one woman's careful navigation through her adult life, but it also speaks to the larger narrative of the holiday it's centered upon. On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers rode into Texas to share the good news that slavery had been abolished through President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation — in 1863. Although the Union had won the Civil War two years prior, the Confederacy was still holding strong in Texas, so the executive order was largely ignored in the state. As a result, Black people in Texas had continued living under the oppression none the wiser.
As the United States tried to reintegrate the bitter Southern states back into the fold, Black people were dealt the harshest blows amidst the chaos of the Reconstruction Era. Alongside the meaningful political, social and economic gains the Black community saw during the time, the 12 years after the Civil War were unfortunately also marked by rampant efforts to maintain white supremacy; widespread violence against Black people continued, as did severe social codes and written laws that restricted free people's basic civil rights.
For Black enslaved Texans effectively freed on Juneteenth (though other forms of legalized slavery still persist centuries later), the day is a celebration of a dream deferred, never lost. And even when they were granted the very thing that their ancestors had prayed for generation after generation, it had to be reimagined and fashioned to fit their new normal, a fact that Miss Juneteenth's protagonist is also forced to grapple with in her tiny Texas town. That same struggle, says Beharie, is our current reality — even in 2020, we're not exactly free yet.
"There's an obvious parallel there," the actress explained over the phone. "We've had these windows — the Reconstruction Era, the Civil Rights movement, right now — where we're trying to get free again. We're thinking, Hold on, there's something missing here. It doesn't have to be this way!"
"The film puts everything into perspective," shared her young co-star Chikaeze. "We're celebrating the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth, but in 2020, Black people are still fighting for the human right to live freely. Slavery was abolished, but systemic racism works to keep us oppressed."
The United States's terse relationship with anti-blackness and the manifestations of its history of white supremacy are being called into question and outrightly rejected, with many Americans speaking out against a culture that was never made for us. Much like Turquoise and the ancestors emancipated in the late 1800s, what we're seeking now — what we've been fighting for for years — is a happily-ever-after of our own handwork. Uprisings across the country and around the world stem from that collective desire to control our own destiny.
"Miss Juneteenth speaks to people who have been traditionally discarded thinking outside of an older paradigm in order to create their own," stressed Beharie. "It's part of a larger, more difficult conversation about how we actually deserve to live in an equitable environment."
Newbie actress Chikaeze is more than ready to have that hard conversation. In the project, her character Kai side steps Turquoise's traditional mindset and willfully embraces her own dream (auditioning for the school's dance team) of making something of herself. Kai's stubbornness and tenacity resonated with the young actress, who knows a thing or two about breaking from tradition in favor of a better method.
The daughter of Nigerian parents, Chikaeze also had to shrug off the societal expectations of her own in order to pursue acting despite not seeing herself being reflected in Hollywood. That tendency to shirk the status quo is peak Gen Z, and its no wonder that Zoomers are among the loudest voices in the call for the radical re-imagination of what society could be. They're not asking for change — they're creating it for themselves.
"As a community, we're making change, speaking up, protesting," said Chikaeze. "We're doing what we have to in order to make our voices heard because we believe that there's better for us."
"We know there's more, and that's exactly why we have to tap into that consciousness," added Beharie. "To look into that potential not just for Black people — for all of us. We know that it doesn't have to be this way. The world can exist for the betterment of everybody."
From beginning to end, Peoples' story is deeply rooted in Texas history, but it has powerful cultural implications that reverberate across generations and even across borders. Miss Juneteenth is an exploration of Black present, past, and future, a carefully crafted narrative that questions just what it means to truly be free in a world where the goal posts are always moving. Liberation is never one and done; as a community, we can't ever afford to stop imagining what freedom looks like.