Even Nicole Beharie’s eye blinks contain multitudes. Watch
her act opposite Anthony Mackie in their 2019 episode as a married couple on Black
Mirror and see for yourself: she conveys surprise, annoyance, disbelief and
disappointment just by batting her eyelashes. In 2011, Beharie laid bare the
same depth as Marianne in director Steve McQueen’s Shame, treating a
lover’s false start in the bedroom with sympathetic compassion. Through lead roles
like Mrs. Jackie Robinson in 42 or starring as FBI agent Abbie Mills on
Fox’s supernatural Sleepy Hollow and more, the Florida-born,
Julliard-trained actress consistently earns her place as one of the shining
lights of the New Black Hollywood.
Just in time for Black America’s favorite holiday, Nicole Beharie returns as the star of Miss Juneteenth: a Fort Worth, Texas-based drama about former pageant winner Turquoise Jones navigating her 30’s as the mom of a teenager who couldn’t care less about winning the contest. First-time feature film writer-director Channing Godfrey Peoples (Queen Sugar) reveals things about integrity, resilience, and dreams deferred that are rarely seen through the Black experience on film. EBONY convened with Nicole Beharie about the themes of Miss Juneteenth and how they converge with the Black Lives Matter moment of today’s headlines.
EBONY: Why does Turquoise hold on so tight to her glory
days of having been Miss Juneteenth?
Nicole Beharie: I feel like that’s human nature to
not wanna let go. Everyone’s afraid of change. That was a period in her life
when her potential was seen, and she’s since then sort of discarded. People
don’t see the same value or promise in her. That’s actually something that she
says: “You can see the girls up there with all this promise.” I think that that
harkened to that time for her. But holding onto the past is a very dangerous
thing, as we see in the times of Make America Great Again—holding onto the past
rather than reimagining a new future and what’s actually here where we are.
Miss Juneteenth is intentionally ambiguous at
certain parts. Could you fill in some of the blanks?
It’s supposed to be ambiguous; it’s supposed to be like a
slice of life. We’re just getting pieces, and people can just sort of put it
together. I could answer those questions for you, but I think what’s more
important is to kind of drop in and see; you can imagine all the different things
What we know is, Turquoise had an opportunity, and then she
had a child. And the great thing I love about this story is that everyone is
real. They’re imperfect. There’s no black and white. [Her lover] Ronnie’s not
bad, Turquoise is not bad, even the mother is not bad. Everyone has flaws. And
I think that’s not something that we see, especially in stories with people of
color, where they can be multifaceted, where they are good people and they have
flaws at the same time.
So Turquoise’s mother, who’s sort of an alcoholic Holy
Roller, isn’t in the wrong to you?
With the mother, she believes in an old paradigm, sort of in
the way that Turquoise is believing in an old paradigm about this pageant. The
mother says something like, “A woman can make it if she just uses her looks,” and
she’s really trying to push Turquoise to get married and do it that way. The
film ends with a different kind of happily ever after, a more progressive kind
of version of it. So in a way, we’re seeing different generations navigate
expectations of a community.
Another one of the things I really love about this story is that
this is Channing [Godfrey Peoples]’s love letter to her community. She
definitely was like, “You gotta get the accent right, you’re gonna be acting
alongside locals, these are my people.” And it was a challenge but it was
really humbling. I think that people can the love that she has for her
community, and that they, in turn, have for her. There’s a lot of support in
our community period. We’re actually seeing that even now, with people making
sure they shout-out Black businesses.
Where do you think their Turquoise and Ronnie’s
relationship goes from here?
We actually had more scenes in the film that would have made
it a little clearer. But I like the way they cut it as well, to keep it sort of
open. It could go a number of different ways. I’m a fan of ambiguity. In my
experience in life, relationships are a lot of things, and they can take a lot
of different iterations. But one thing I happen to really love is that Ronnie
makes some decisions and Turquoise makes some decisions, that they just can’t
see eye to eye, but they want the same thing. So maybe one day they’ll see eye
to eye, I don’t know. It’s so funny though that you’re asking questions about
the future, because one of the things about the movie [is that] the end feels
like it’s just the beginning of this other story that’s about to be told.
You totally slayed a supporting role in Oscar-winning
Steve McQueen’s Shame. Any Steve McQueen stories?
He’s very trusting of his actors in a way I haven’t
experienced a great deal in my career, letting you do your thing and giving you
the space. He told me that they weren’t really looking to cast that particular
part with a Black woman or a woman of color. And he fought for that. Their
pushback was, does that character even exist? I believe he said something to
the effect of, “I exist. I’m doing this. That person exists.”
Tell us about that moment when Turquoise finally accepts
her daughter Kai for who she is.
It’s such a beautiful moment of realizing that [Turquoise has] done a good job, and that you trust your child and trust in the future. Kinda like we’re seeing now: there are people picking up the mantle of what happened in the past and pushing the needle forward. And a great deal of those people are young people. I think that’s what is has always been throughout history. And so, we’re sort of seeing that. Because when that revelation happens for Turquoise, then her life starts to change too. She starts to make different choices, right? But it’s hard to let go. Haven’t you ever had a dream, or something that was “this is the way, this is the way,” and it may not have been the way? Or you even get it and then you’re like, nah, this ain’t it, this is not what I thought it was gonna be. Staying open is a big part of consciousness development. But that’s a whole other conversation. [laughter]