Nicole Beharie on the Unexpected Timeliness of 'Miss Juneteenth' (Exclusive)

The actress plays a former beauty queen pushing her daughter towards a dream deferred in the new film, out June 19.

"Juneteenth asks us to consider the promises of freedom not yet fully realized in the United States."

In years past, a movie like Miss Juneteenth might have been the spark for a moderate cultural conversation about the eponymous holiday and why we, as a country, have federalized the remembrance of genocidal explorers and slave-holding presidents, but recognize emancipation as little more than a bullet point on Abraham Lincoln's resume.

But not this year. With ongoing protests and a renewed national focus on the Black Lives Matter movement following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and more (plus President Trump's hastily rescinded decision to hold a campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on June 19), Juneteenth is in the national spotlight like never before.

Miss Juneteenth -- which is shaped by writer-director Channing Godfrey Peoples' own childhood in Fort Worth, Texas -- takes its name from the under-celebrated holiday of Juneteenth, which marks the anniversary of June 19, 1865, the day that enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, were read the federal orders notifying them that they had been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation more than two full years earlier.

"I think it's really powerful. I've been thinking a lot about it. It kind of messes with my mind a little bit," star Nicole Beharie tells ET of the movie's arriving amid a global movement. "That moment of liberation, of freedom, of everyone collectively finally becoming free, it kind of feels like there's a parallel here, hearkening back to a time where people weren't aware of new rights, of a new era, and of a new paradigm."

It's a moment the cast and crew of Miss Juneteenth could never have anticipated. "I feel like we're kind of there as a country and as a world. It seems like it's kind of shifting the needle across the board. Just the awareness and then the awareness, hopefully, turns into greater equality."

It was policy analyst Maya Pendleton who shared the aforementioned quote about the "promises of freedom" in an essay for the Center for the Study of Social Policy, titled "Freedom for Who? A Reflection on Juneteenth and the Fourth of July", speaking to the cultural implications of the under-recognized holiday amid the pomp and circumstance of the national spectacle that follows soon after.

Beharie didn't grow up with the parades and pageantry surrounding Juneteenth. "It wasn't until college while I was doing a play about that time period that I had read about it," she recalls, "and really it's not something that is celebrated on a national level. There is no real commemoration of emancipation, or the end of that particular terrible time in our history. So I wonder if this is a moment where that can start to be a part of the national narrative."

In the film, she stars as Turquoise, a former "Miss Juneteenth" pageant winner, whose victory lap and promising future were sidelined when she became a teenage mother shortly after her crowning. When her daughter, Kai (Alexis Chikaeze), is old enough to participate in the pageant herself, Turquoise pushes blindly toward the goal, scraping every penny together, eager to watch her daughter capture all that she couldn't.

"At one point, Turquoise was important and valued, and then she finds herself cleaning toilets, and is not necessarily someone that the community is holding," Beharie explains. "I think looking in on those lives and seeing what it's like and seeing what the dreams are -- a dream deferred -- of those people that are working to survive every day, [you see] maybe one little thing was the obstacle, or the roadblock that changed their lives, and how they invest in their children, in the future, in something big and lofty."

"The story is largely about, on the surface, a woman, a family, trying to survive and figure out how they're going to relate to each other," she says. "It's about the future, and it's also about the community, and the values that they have. Who is valued, and who isn't? What are the codes of conduct? Who gets discarded, and why?"

Despite pushback from her daughter, judgment from the town and a lack of support from her fanatically religious mother (Lori Hayes) or frustratingly inconsistent ex (Kendrick Sampson), Turquoise keeps her head held high. Even the weight of the world on her shoulders isn't heavy enough to keep her from donning her ornate pageant crown for an audience of one in the bathroom mirror. Even when her electricity gets shut off, Beharie keeps the fire behind her character's eyes.

"Everyone keeps saying, 'She's a big dreamer. She always wants so much,' but those are the people that changed the world," she notes. "Martin Luther King Jr., Einstein, they had to see something that wasn't [there yet], a freedom or a possibility that isn't realized yet."

Vertical Entertainment
Vertical Entertainment

Miss Juneteenth is bolstered by the small but impressive cast, including Marcus Mauldin, Liz Mikel, Akron Watson, Sampson, Hayes and Chikaeze, who makes her feature debut in the film.

"I'm so proud of her," Beharie raves of her onscreen daughter. "I'm honored to be a part of introducing her to the community, so that everyone could see all the talent that-- It's just everywhere. This young lady showed up a little nervous, and by day three, four, she was ready to roll. She was taking it all up like she was a sponge; she was watching me, she was watching Kendrick, and she was finding her own freedom."

As for Beharie, after a breakthrough role in 2008's American Violet, the actress has been celebrated for performances in 42, Black Mirror, Sleepy Hollow and more. However, as part of the recent cultural conversation has shined a spotlight on black actresses' struggle for equal parts and equal pay, Beharie admits that she's felt the extra burden, and an effect on her own work.

"I think that's one of the things that made me understand Turquoise," she recalls. "It's almost like looking back at a time before I woke up to the full awareness that people saw me -- even though I was serving their narrative -- that they were perhaps treating me as a second-class citizen, despite whatever I did to assimilate, or to work as hard as I possibly could. To undo the idea that, despite the value that you add to something, some people do feel like you are expendable in our lives and our contributions."

"There's a lot of things that need to change, and while we all feel privileged and grateful to be in this business, there are definitely people around that will just be like, 'Just be happy to be here,' where you don't necessarily get treated equally, or you get judged very severely," Beharie continues. "As we saw with #MeToo and Time's Up, women are coming out about some of those injustices, but there's, like, a double whammy there when you're black and a woman."

In Miss Juneteenth, however, she brings her full power to the screen, never letting Turquoise slip into a selfish or pitiable caricature as the film finds a satisfying catharsis. She credits Peoples with creating an "intimacy" on set that allowed the cast and crew to shape a heartfelt story that speaks both to the individual emotion and to the unprecedented moment of its release.

"Supporting an amazing black writer-director and working in a community that's so supportive and that has such a strong history, that means the world to me," she says. "As a black woman getting to tell those stories, support those people, and to have more opportunities to tell all kinds of stories is really what matters. I see it happening. "

While the film is undeniably a story of black women, told by black women, with specific details of the black experience woven into its rich fabric, Beharie also sees Miss Juneteenth as a "beautifully specific" slice of life where anyone can find commonality. "John Singleton has a quote that says, 'The more specific a story, the more universal [it is],'" she says.

"I hope that it can also add to the conversation and add to seeing people as multi-dimensional...all the different colors of a community and what someone who you may not take a second glance at is actually going through and who they are at the core."

Miss Juneteenth is available to rent on demand on June 19.