Channing Godfrey Peoples new film Miss Juneteenth is a celebration of Blackness, of Womanhood, and community—however—these things do not come without struggle. Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie), is a single mother and former winner of Fort Worth, TX’s Miss Juneteenth pageant. She is disappointed with her life trajectory and wants to create a better life for her rebellious daughter, Kai (Alexis Chikaeze). Turquoise wants her daughter to enter into the Miss Juneteenth pageant, thinking it’s the perfect way out for Kai as the winner gets a scholarship to college. But is this something that will truly help Kai, or is this a mother trying to live vicariously through her child?
Alexis Chikaeze, who is the new kid on the block. In her first major film role in Miss Juneteenth, she handles the role with confidence, and stands strong next to powerhouse actress like Beharie. We sit down with the young actress to discuss the audition process, her love for pageantry, and exploring the connection between herself and her character Kai.
Are you from Texas? You give off the Texan Vibe.
Yes, ma’am. I am from Dallas, Texas.
I know it’s your home, but what is it about Texas that keeps you here? What is it about Texas that you like?
The people of Dallas are very welcoming. Even when you meet people, it’s like the connection that just clicks. it’s just really easy. There is a very large Nigerian community in Texas and I’m Nigerian, so it’s just, it’s just home .I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else really.
I know there’s great things about Texas, but there’s also a lot of poverty in Texas. You see a lot of that in the film, Miss Juneteenth, how there’s a strong working class and working poor community. Can you talk a little bit about that?
No matter what we’re going through, no matter what we’re facing, our rich culture is going to overshine that. When celebrating the Juneteenth holiday, we aim to focus on positivity. While it’s very important to bring light to the problems and the issues at hand, we are able to look at the good and be optimistic in life, no matter what it throws at us.
When and where did you first learn about the Juneteenth holiday?
When my parents first came here, they didn’t know about Juneteenth, but they learned about it. I didn’t know about it until two years ago. I can count even on my hands the amount of times that I truly learned about Black history to where it even stuck in my brain. Schools don’t do a good enough job teaching Black history.
They always teach the abridged version.
Exactly! Being a part of the film allowed me to truly learn about what Juneteenth really is and had people around me offer insight. I’m very grateful to have learned more about what Black history is and, you know, things that make us who we are.
Talk a little bit about the audition process. How did you hear about the film and did you read the script before you auditioned?
It’s my first audition ever. [laughs]. My agent sent it to me, and I read the breakdown and how it described Kai–I felt easily connected. The opportunity came quickly, as I know a lot of this business is waiting around to hear back about roles. I only started pursuing my acting career in February of last year and professionally in May 2019. I figured even if I don’t get the role, I’ve had a great experience auditioning.
I know this is Ms. Peoples’ first feature film, I believe, and she does a great job with sort of framing this mother and daughter relationship and this scenario and not making it tropey and full of trauma. I’m wondering what it was like working with Channing Godfrey Peoples and Nicole Beharie?
Channing is very kind and understanding. There were a lot of ‘first’ for me, and Channing understood that. She, both of them, were so helpful. Even in giving directions, Channing was always giving me pointers, and giving me space to just be. Even if there were little tweaks, I still got to exhibit who I felt Kai was and who I believe Kai to be.
Nicole is absolutely just amazing. I honestly adore her work, so getting to be right then and there with her, was education and fun. If I needed help, she was always willing to say, “Hey we can do this little exercise before just to get you pumped up.” She’s absolutely incredible for sure.
Have you done pageantry before? Or was the film your first time being immersed in that world?
I did do pageants growing up. That’s another reason why I definitely felt that this role was spot on for me. I did three pageants growing up, and I wanted to do them, but my mom wasn’t feeling it. Despite pageantry being a predominantly white space, was a confidence builder for me, and helped me be less shy.
What do you hope people who watch Miss Juneteenth get out of the film? What’s the one thing you hope people take away from watching it?
In light of everything happening right now, you know, we are coming up on the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth and 157 years since slavery was abolished and as we’ve seen today, there are peaceful protests going on all around the world. We are still fighting and still speaking out for our human rights. I just want this film to be something that honestly sheds light on how even the things that might keep us down and we can turn them into better things. We gotta keep buckling up. Now people are really starting to read up on history and I hope they continue to share, continue to speak out, continue to peacefully protest, continue to be heard, acknowledged and celebrated.
Miss Juneteenth is currently available to stream on VOD.