Channing Godfrey Peoples on Capturing the Grit and Dignity of a Community in Miss Juneteenth

Movies Features Channing Godfrey Peoples
Channing Godfrey Peoples on Capturing the Grit and Dignity of a Community in Miss Juneteenth

Channing Godfrey Peoples’ feature debut, Miss Juneteenth, is a multifaceted piece of work: It’s a portrait of black American life, a testament to black American pride and determination, a tribute to women like its protagonist, who work with such casual resolution that it looks as natural to them as breathing, and a homecoming for Peoples herself, who was born and raised in Fort Worth, Texas.

Miss Juneteenth tells the story of Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie), a single-ish mom busting her back at bars and funeral homes to make ends meet for her daughter, Kai (Alexis Chikaeze), who she’s in the process of grooming for the town’s upcoming Miss Juneteenth pageant. Turquoise won the crown herself years ago, and having missed out on the opportunities that winning would supposedly afford her, she’s fixated on securing the very same opportunities for Kai. But Kai has her own ideas of who she is, who she wants to be, and what she wants to do, which stirs up a parent-child clash as problems and pains pile up for Turquoise along the way.

Paste spoke with Peoples about putting the personal side of Miss Juneteenth on film, and the craft of naturalist filmmaking.

Paste Magazine: For me, this movie is so much about black American pride, and also a window into that experience for me as a white American. Was pride a conscious element on set while you guys were shooting?
Channing Godfrey Peoples: I think it was both. It was subconscious in the writing and then became much more conscious in rewrites and in imagining the film. As a filmmaker, what’s important for me is authenticity. I see the community that the film exists within with this sense of pride and dignity, so I’m glad to hear that you felt you got a sense of that in the film. It was important to show this community in the way I see it, in that it’s beautiful to me. It’s also a super personal film. I wanted to be able to acknowledge the pride of this community, the people of the community, and especially women like Turquoise, who are such a big part of my life. There’s so much of me in Turquoise, and my mom, my grandmother, my aunts, and also women in the community who I felt inspired and nurtured by.

Paste: You used the word authenticity. I thought a lot about the effort that was put into breathing life into this very specific place where the movie is set. So clearly the setting is really important to you.
Peoples: Absolutely. And I have a very naturalistic approach, so I wanted to make sure that I was able to capture as many details of the environment as possible. If I’d had my druthers, I would have wanted even more, but then we would be sitting there watching the movie for a much longer time. [laughs] So it was a constant discussion about how much world we were able to capture and how much world we could fit into the film. My producers—they were so wonderful—but they were constantly saying, “Okay, don’t worry, you’ll have more stories.” [laughs]

Paste: I felt like I was there, especially in Wayman’s, with the texture that you found. I felt like I could smell the ribs cooking out back.
Peoples: So much of the texture was already there. We were shooting in this existing place, but one of the things that was unique about it was that it was a place that I frequented coming up that I always knew about, and it was a mystery to me. When I finally got to go there, it was a real moment for me to be able to go to this bar, which is called Lloyd’s in real life, and I remember going there and just being fascinated by the space and by the people. It’s like a home away from home for folks. I said, “I’m gonna shoot in this place if they let me.” They opened up their doors to me. It’s a fascinating place. I love the folks there—it feels like home to me—and I wanted to represent it with the beauty in which I saw it.

Paste: Connecting that back to your description of your style as naturalistic—the naturalism feels really important to me, but when you’re shooting the picture, when you’re staging scenes and doing the blocking, how did you think about maximizing those natural elements? Wayman’s feels like such a creation to me, but there’s nothing about it that’s not real from what I’m hearing from you.
Peoples: It’s definitely a lived-in space. There were things, obviously, that we had to production design, but it’s an existing space we were coming into. So we were saying, “Okay, the production design is to enhance the space for particular moments.” As far as the blocking was concerned, I knew the space so well. When I was researching and writing the film, I went in there and worked a couple of nights myself, to put myself in Turquoise’s headspace. I don’t know if it feels bigger on film, but it’s actually a small space, and people would just create their own dance floor and things like that. That all inspired my blocking—how Turquoise moves through the space, how big the space feels to her. Really, the space feels tiny to her. She’s closed in this space, and it’s packed with people and she’s constantly on the go.

Paste: I love hearing about craftsmanship from filmmakers. It makes me feel like I was there.
Peoples: To be honest, I don’t get a lot of craft questions. I tell people all the time, especially as a black woman director, I want to talk about the craft. I want to talk about my inspiration for sure, because it’s the heart of why I made the film, but I also want to be asked questions about the craft. I’ve had whole interviews where there’s not one question about craft. I always get the same question: “Were you Miss Juneteenth?” [laughs] That’s readily available online! I love to get into the weeds on how we made the movie.

To add to what you were asking about the texture: I shot it in the neighborhood in which I grew up. It’s called the Southside of Fort Worth, Texas, and once it was just a bustling black community where they had black businesses and black commerce. Today, there are literally businesses that have held onto their businesses through generations. You saw a couple of those in the film: in the bar, in the funeral home. They’re family friends. That’s the Baker Funeral home. The community feels lived in, and we were talking about that earlier, when you asked about the texture of Wayman’s, but it also feels like everything’s slightly past its expiration date. I say that because gentrification has moved into this neighborhood, obviously, and people literally are holding on to their businesses no matter what. It’s a choice that they keep their businesses in this community.

I approached everything cinematically from that aspect I wanted everything to feel, and to look like, it’s just past expiration: the cinematography, the costumes, the production design, everything. I was also looking to find a way to show the grit in the community. The people there have this dignity, and they also have this grit about them. That’s what I wanted the film to feel like, as well.

Paste: You mentioned that you worked a couple of nights at the bar. Did Nicole do anything like that, too?
Peoples:I fused that experience into the script as much as possible. I was very detailed in the script, and when Nicole came down, we had a chance to take her to the bar just so she could walk through and experience being in this space. She’s a brilliant actor, so she was able to move in that space in the way that I imagined Turquoise would, and in a way that I see the women that work in that bar move in that space.

Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.

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