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 that happened.
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]