Channing Godfrey Peoples made her feature directorial debut last year with Miss Juneteenth, a film in which a single mother (played by Nicole Beharie) tries to convince her daughter to join her Texas town's annual Miss Juneteenth beauty pageant. For the director—who grew up in Fort Worth, where she shot Miss Juneteenth—the film couldn't have been more personal. "When people talk about Juneteenth becoming a national holiday, it's important to remember not just Black history, it's American history," Peoples said over Zoom one day. "It happened here. It's tough when people don't know, but it's also not a surprise because I've lived with that for a long time. I would just hope that people are able to come to it with a sense of reverence, because these were actual people whose freedom had been kept from them."
Many directors can pinpoint a moment in their past when they began toying with cameras, sparking an interest in cinema, but for Peoples, it all started with an interest in literature. Early on, she read the works of literary greats like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Gloria Naylor, and Maya Angelou, and found inspiration in their complex stories about Black women. As a kid, her mother used to take her to a small community theater—in the same neighborhood in which she shot her feature debut—to watch plays like For Colored Girls. These productions inspired her to go to college for theater and try her hand at acting.
When she started making movies, a 1978 film by Charles Burnett called Killer of Sheep stopped her in her tracks, and had a profound impact on Peoples's work. According to Peoples, Burnett's film—which was re-released in 2007—is a master class in timelessness and slow cinema. "I wanted to put that camera in a place where it centered the performances. I really appreciate that about Killer of Sheep, too. This camera is in a place where the characters are allowed to exist in the frame. The camera had to show the world and it had to show the characters and how they navigated. That was most important to me and my decisions for where the camera goes in Miss Juneteenth."
Peoples—who will also direct an upcoming episode of HBO Max's Generation and is currently developing Miss Juneteenth as a series under her first-look deal with Universal Content Productions—continues to make work that is specific and intimate. Calling from North Carolina, where she's working on her upcoming projects with her husband (and creative partner) Neil Creque Williams, the Miss Juneteenth director talks about centering performances on-screen and her love of independent Black cinema, in her Freeze Frame Q&A, below.
When did you start making movies?
I'd gone out to California after I finished undergrad to try my hand at acting, and there was some disappointment in the available roles for Black women, so I veered toward independent film. I had gotten into a USC thesis film as an actor, and I was fascinated with everything that was happening behind the camera, because at that point, films with big crews just looked inaccessible. But in a thesis film, it's just students and a camera and a lighting kit; It looked manageable. I ended up applying to USC, not realizing how difficult it is to get in, and gratefully I got in. It was definitely a turning point for me because it gave me the space to find my voice and nurture that voice without the pressures of the industry.
Was USC where you made your first short film?
Yes. In your first level there, they ask you to make a film without words. They really try to get you to lean on the visuals. But when I think about it, my style was still there. It was a poetic, timeless pacing. Even the scene that I've chosen for this conversation, from Killer of Sheep, you can definitely see the influence of that in my first film.
Do you find yourself looking back at older work often, or is that rare for you?
No, I'd love to. It's just that filmmaking is such an undertaking, and then there's life, too. My creative partner is someone I met in film school, and coincidentally, now he's my husband. We've taken on the journey together, and there's my beautiful little toddler—she came into the world shortly before I made Miss Juneteenth. So there was just a lot of life in between. I'm always thinking about what's next, but at the same time I'm hugely influenced by my upbringing and the people in my community who inspired much of my storytelling.
When you started working on Miss Juneteenth, did you know that you wanted to make something so personal?
I've always written from a place this personal, but this is probably the most personal, just because Turquoise as a character was really inspired by the women in my life, but especially my mom. Growing up, my mom was single for much of my life and I watched her juggle her own dreams while raising kids. She would bring us to the community theater, and she had her own artistic ambitions. That was a way of keeping art alive for her, and was definitely an inspiration for me. I probably had early ideas for Miss Juneteenth a decade ago. I had a draft about seven years ago, and it took us seven years to get it made. I really wrote Miss Juneteenth from that perspective of watching my mom, but then right around the time I found out we were going to be able to make the film, I found out I was pregnant. It was like art imitating life. My daughter turned a year old on set, and I would have a sitter hold her and then I would run over in between takes and breastfeed her. She was on set a lot, in her baby carrier. When I say it's a personal film, that's probably an understatement.
How has your relationship to the Juneteenth holiday evolved since making this film?
Growing up, Juneteenth had a lot of pomp and circumstance. I looked forward to it in a celebratory way. When I came into adulthood and especially when doing research for this film, I understood it in a different way. It really is about us commemorating this day in which our ancestors who were enslaved people in Texas finally got their freedom, astoundingly two and a half years after they were actually free. That's still mind blowing to me. It's something that I wanted to portray thematically in the film, especially in Turquoise's journey and finding her own sense of freedom and saying, what does freedom mean to us as Black people today? Turquoise is coming to terms with her own past later in life, and examining that as a storyteller, I always want to be able to examine history, especially the facts of what it meant to us as Black people in this country to have enslaved people who suffered greatly as our ancestors, and what it means for us today.
Miss Juneteenth feels like a very specific film, and even if you've never been to Texas or heard of the annual Miss Juneteenth pageant, it's that cultural specificity—intimately knowing the town as someone who grew up there—that really brings the viewer into a new world.
Totally. The Miss Juneteenth pageant was part of the fabric of my upbringing. Growing up, it was what I looked forward to every year. And as a young Black girl, this was my version of Miss America. You can only imagine that sense of representation and what impact it had on me. I'm not surprised that years later it's come up in my work because it was confidence-building for me to see all those young Black women on stage. I'm a filmmaker who believes in being with my characters, and that influences my approach—from creating an authentic atmosphere to my naturalistic style of directing actors.
How did a film like Killer of Sheep, Charles Burnett's UCLA master's thesis film, influence your work?
I was in film school, and when I found Killer of Sheep, I remember sitting down and screenshotting every single frame. It's a film that just made me lean forward. What I loved about it is that there's this stillness, a pacing that basically said to me, I'm here and you need to settle into the pace that I'm setting. I love that about it because it's just like poetry on film. I don't think I'd ever seen anything like that before. There was this specificity in the lived-in, intimate feeling that I got when I watched it. I referenced it a lot; it's definitely an influence.
It's a film that, unfortunately, I think many people have not seen—despite the fact that it is a hallmark of the L.A. Rebellion independent Black cinema movement that started in the 1970s.
I had a similar feeling around the talent that came out of that time, like Julie Dash and Haile Gerima. I agree with you, you almost feel like their films have been hidden, and I hope that more people—especially now that Killer of Sheep has been re-released—come to it, but those films were entirely formative for me. They really showed me that you could embrace specificity on screen and show worlds that we often haven't seen in cinema.
In the scene from Killer of Sheep that you chose to share, the main character Stan and his wife dance in their home, and the camera stays on them for three solid minutes. There's intimacy between this couple, but the film also reveals there are outside forces like labor and expectations creating tension. Is there a similar tension between Ronnie and Turquoise in Miss Juneteenth?
Totally. This dance scene in Killer of Sheep was telling the story so beautifully with body language, and the characters are filling the frame. There is a yearning that you can just feel by watching their bodies. "This Bitter Earth" is playing and Dinah Washington's voice is so stunning, but in the context of this scene, it almost feels haunting. There are a few beats at the end that took my breath away, because when Stan walks away and his wife turns to the window, there's that backlighting and her hand touches the window. I just gasped because it says so much about them as a couple, about her and her yearning and where he is emotionally. This scene had a profound impact on me. And you can probably infer some of the influences in Miss Juneteenth, even in the scene in which Ronnie and Turquoise are dancing. There's a story that we're telling in that particular scene about where their relationship is in that moment.
How do you like to establish shot types? Are there any particular ways of framing a shot that you find yourself drawn to?
When I'm thinking about camera placement, I'm always thinking about, how can I most be with my actors? That was definitely my process with Miss Juneteenth, especially because it is a film in which there's this story told through the dialogue, but there's also so much of it that you have to feel because you're telling an internal story about this woman's journey. How do we get in with her as much as possible? How can we layer the story? How can I capture bits of the world, but still make sure that Turquoise is centered?
I think that attitude toward world-building is apparent in Miss Juneteenth as well. And so is the stillness that you mentioned before. Did you always know you wanted Miss Juneteenth to have a slower pace?
I'm grateful for films like Killer of Sheep and Daughters of the Dust. Without them, I might not have embraced that pacing with a certain sense of confidence. I was really inspired by the community itself for Miss Juneteenth. The locations that you see in the film are actual, living, breathing locations, and they're owned by family friends. This particular neighborhood that we shot in is called the Historic South Side of Fort Worth—it's where I'm from. On screen, it feels like a little country town, but it's really a major city. It’s a close-knit area; everybody knows everybody. The community is being gentrified, so they're holding onto these legacy businesses no matter what. I was really mimicking the timelessness of the community. There's this feeling when you go there that even as things change, they're still remaining the same and this place has a familiarity to it, which really dictated my pacing.
How did you mimic the timelessness of the location for Miss Juneteenth?
When I took my husband to visit the community in Texas where we shot Miss Juneteenth, he said something that was so profound to me. He said, 'This place, it almost feels like everything is slightly past its expiration date here.' In the film, in the bar, there's a big jukebox. I had gone off to graduate school and came back, and they started replacing the jukebox with a newer model, and it was a huge change. That was a huge step forward for them, but part of me wants to preserve every little specific thing that I remember seeing and feeling in these spaces.