By Mary Sollosi
June 19, 2020 at 08:30 AM EDT

When writer-director Channing Godfrey Peoples conceived of Miss Juneteenth, her indie drama landing theatrically and on VOD today, she never could have guessed the climate in which it would eventually come out. She made the movie for a moment not by predicting where we'd be on this June 19, though, but by looking back on the ones of her own childhood.

"Juneteenth has been such a big part of my life, our life, since I was a kid," the Texas-born filmmaker tells EW. "There are these community commemorations that happen every year, which include parades, you've got blues music, you've got barbecue, and then the centerpiece of it is the Miss Juneteenth pageant." Upon going to grad school at USC and getting "curious stares" when wishing her classmates a happy Juneteenth, Peoples was inspired to make a film about the holiday.

Credit: Vertical Entertainment

Celebrated every year on June 19, Juneteenth marks the anniversary of the 1865 federal order that finally freed the last slaves, in Texas — two and a half years after they had officially (but not effectively, in the far-off state) been liberated under the Emancipation Proclamation. This year, the holiday will be marked not only by the annual regional celebrations (and the release of Peoples' film, which debuted at Sundance in January), but by greater domestic recognition amid this historic moment of protest and a national conversation about systemic racial injustice.

"It's a double-edged sword for me," the filmmaker says of releasing Miss Juneteenth at such a time. "It saddens me that we're in this moment where we are. We're talking about Black people finding their freedom two and a half years late [on Juneteenth], and we're still in a place in 2020 where we're talking about Black people having the freedom to even breathe.

"At the same time, it's an honor for me, as an African-American filmmaker, to be releasing a film that has the backdrop of Juneteenth in it," she continues. "I feel grateful to be able to tell this story. I feel grateful to be able to tell a story about Black people. I love being Black. I love us. And that is another reason that I wanted to tell this story, and I was really passionate about it, and fought to tell it."

Miss Juneteenth tells the story of Turquoise Jones (a captivating Nicole Beharie), a Texas single mother and onetime Miss Juneteenth herself. Her own post-pageant dreams never materialized, but she still seeks something more for herself, and hopes that her teenage daughter, Kai (newcomer Alexis Chikaeze), can follow in her footsteps to win the same crown — but then blaze a new trail beyond it.

"It's my version of Miss America, just seeing those young, graceful, hopeful African-American women," Peoples says of the pageant she grew up watching. Her portrayal of the event takes details from the real thing, like Kai's oration of Maya Angelou's "Phenomenal Woman" for her talent in the competition. "Every Juneteenth pageant, you're going to have someone deliver that poem — and rightfully so!" Peoples says. "Dr. Maya Angelou is such a big part of, I think, most African-American girls' existence."

That's true for Peoples herself, who grew up in Texas where "there certainly wasn't an infrastructure for film [studies] for a young African-American woman," she says. She attributes her earliest cinematic education to Black female artists like "Toni Morrison and Alice Walker and Maya Angelou and Gloria Naylor and all these incredible literary figures who you can just read and visually interpret their words," she says. "You can just see the words coming off the page, and that's how I started conceiving films in my head."

Just as the film invokes that Black American literary tradition and the story of Juneteenth itself, it also engages with history on a smaller scale. In crafting a narrative around these notions of heritage and legacy, "I thought about the cyclical nature of families," says Peoples, who depicts Kai and Turquoise both grappling with the things they've inherited, and what they hope to take forward. "As these pieces started coming together, I started seeing this mother-daughter story." That dynamic took on an even greater resonance between writing and shooting, when Peoples found out she was pregnant right as the project got the green light; she celebrated her daughter's first birthday on the set.

"I literally ended up approaching the movie differently after my daughter was born," she says. "Before, there was, like, this tougher-love version of Turquoise on paper. But after my daughter was born, my direction to Nicole and the other cast was 'Whatever we do, we have to find the joy in Turquoise's love for Kai.'"

But the character doesn't just reflect the filmmaker herself; Turquoise's voice is also "the voice of my aunt, it's the voice of my mother, my grandmother," Peoples says. "These are the stories that I want to tell, as an artist and a storyteller and a person who believes that she wants to put stories about Black people in the world, and their humanity, and their dignity."

Having previously made shorts and written for Queen Sugar, Peoples makes her feature directorial debut with Miss Juneteenth, which makes clear her mission as a storyteller. "So much of my work is about African-American women taking a step forward in their lives," she says. "I knew that I wanted to tell a story about a Black woman literally with a dream deferred, and I knew that I wanted to tell a story about a Black woman that wants something that is especially radical — she just wants something for herself."

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