Nicole Beharie was called ‘problematic’ and blacklisted. ‘Miss Juneteenth’ brings redemption
In the wake of nationwide protests against racial injustice, the holiday Juneteenth has garnered widespread attention beyond the confines of Southern Black communities for the first time.
The observance marks the date, June 19, 1865, that the last enslaved African Americans were finally liberated in Texas, nearly 2 ½ years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation into law.
Long recognized as the state holiday Emancipation Day in Texas — and acknowledged by nearly all U.S. states in some way — there have been growing calls to declare the day a federal holiday. New York and Virginia have now deemed it an official holiday, and corporations including Twitter, Nike and the NFL are honoring the day as a paid company holiday.
Fort Worth native Channing Godfrey Peoples, whose feature debut “Miss Juneteenth” hits select theaters, digital and VOD platforms on Friday, grew up celebrating the holiday but, like most Americans, wasn’t taught about the date’s historical significance in school.
“Honestly, I wasn’t taught a whole lot about Juneteenth, it just was,” she said. “Where I grew up, you learned about Juneteenth by the community. School was inconsequential in that sense, it was a community education.
“I remember every year I’d go [to the celebration] and there was always a parade and music and dancing. And to a kid, that’s an exciting time. I remember being invigorated by this sense of community.”
Inspired by the real Miss Juneteenth competition, the indie drama stars Nicole Beharie as Turquoise Jones, a former beauty queen who has failed to achieve success beyond her pageant win. Turquoise is a single mother struggling to make ends meet while clinging fiercely to the hope that her rebellious teenage daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) can replicate her win and create a different outcome for herself.
“I loved Turquoise as a character because she exemplifies someone who a lot of people would just pass by without realizing the richness of her life,” said Beharie by phone from Georgia. “There are not a lot of movies about the women that keep things afloat. I was raised by a single mother so I just wanted to breathe some life into that as best I could. It feels like with a great deal of storytelling, there are perspectives that are missing or they’re always told in the exact same way.”
“I actually wasn’t that familiar with the holiday, so initially when I looked it up I thought [the movie] was going to be a period piece,” added Beharie, who spent her childhood in multiple parts of the globe while her father worked in the foreign service and then lived in D.C. and various Southern states. “It wasn’t something that I learned about in my rearing. I must say there’s an irony to this moment, to finally being aware of [Juneteenth] and feeling like [Black people] are still seeking the promise of freedom and full citizenship. There’s contradictions there, to celebrating belated freedom in this moment. It’s heavy, the symbolism.”
The show offered a rare opportunity for a Black woman to lead a supernatural-themed drama. But after a promising first season, her character Abbie Mills was sidelined in the show’s second season before getting unceremoniously killed off in the Season 3 finale.
“What happened on ‘Sleepy Hollow’ is really interesting,” said Beharie tactfully. “We had a lot of things happen that paralleled the conversations that are happening in this moment.”
Before Abbie’s sacrificial death to save her white partner Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison), the show had already begun to sideline the character in favor of a (critically-panned) romantic subplot between Ichabod and his wife. And behind the scenes, Beharie and Mison were treated as disparately as their characters were on-screen.
“My costar and I were both sick at the same time but I don’t believe that we were treated equally,” said Beharie. “He was allowed to go back to England for a month [to recover while] I was given Episode 9 to shoot on my own. So I pushed through it and then by the end of that episode I was in urgent care. And all the doctors, including the doctors that the studio was sending, were all confirming, ‘Hey, she can’t work right now.’”
Beharie was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that, at the time, she attributed to her abrupt departure. “There’s a lot of pressure in a situation like that where so many people are relying on you alone to get up and get going,” she said. “I feel like it’s taken me the last few years to really see clearly that it wasn’t personal, it’s about the way that these structures are set up. It was very difficult to talk about at the time because I wanted to get back to work. But I was labeled as problematic and blacklisted by some people.”
“I probably could have been more diplomatic about things in some way,” she added. “Since then, I’ve been making sure that I’m working with the right folks. It’s something that we’ve seen with #MeToo and Time’s Up, where people who’ve asked questions have been discarded. It’s not a new story [but] I never thought it would be my story. Unfortunately it is, but healing takes time and I feel like I’m on the other side of it. I learned a lot. I wouldn’t change anything. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody, though.”
Enraged fans pushed to cancel the show after Abbie’s death, using the hashtag #AbbieDeservesBetter and expressing support for Beharie. The show, which had been on a steady ratings decline, was canceled a season after her character’s exit.
“There was a fan base that, without me even really saying anything or anybody knowing what was really going on, picked up on something,” she said. “I was shocked by the hashtag. I didn’t really have time to take it in because we were working 16-, 18-hour days. And once I left and heard about everything, I didn’t have the voice yet. I was too busy healing to really take it in.”
It was a harsh lesson in the fickle nature of stardom, and between Beharie’s “Sleepy Hollow” departure and the Sundance premiere of “Miss Juneteenth” earlier this year, she only booked a few roles including supporting parts in the acclaimed indie “Monsters and Men” and Hulu’s limited series “Little Fires Everywhere.”
“I think Hollywood is an industry that’s difficult for everyone,” she added. “My particular walk is colored by a number of different things. And yeah, it has been challenging. I am reconciling what it means to be an actor and an artist and a woman of color. The consequences of making a mistake or causing a ripple in the water are greater. And ultimately, nobody wants to be [deemed] trouble. So those situations hold you back and you keep quiet, not wanting to upset anyone or ask too many questions. But I feel like I, and the world as a whole, are in a different place now and I’m happy about that.”
Nowadays, Beharie is in much better health and is working on writing scripts “that I hope we’ll be seeing in the next year or two,” she said.
“I no longer register as having an autoimmune disease, but I did have moments where the markers for it were a part of my testing,” she said. “I’m in a very good place now. I have a very clean diet and do lots of mindfulness and meditation and self-care — which I have to say, I wish it didn’t take getting ill for me to really believe in those things.”
In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, Beharie is less fearful about contracting the virus than she is of navigating the systemically racist healthcare industry.
“I was very concerned when coronavirus first came into the consciousness,” she said. “I was a bit panicked because as a person of color and a woman, I have experienced the healthcare system and really have had to advocate for myself.”
“I’m in Georgia right now and it’s pretty open,” she added. “I don’t see a lot of people wearing masks and gloves. And we live in America, so everyone has a choice. But I hope people can be more cautious because I don’t think that this virus is political. I don’t think this virus is choosing sides.”
With the coronavirus crisis and now a wave of protests against police brutality and systemic racism, Beharie says 2020 “is a year unlike any other.” “I’m just praying for all of us, that we use this time wisely and that we progress.
“Sometimes when something new is being born, there’s a lot of pain,” she mused. “There’s contractions and blood and screaming and then hopefully on the other side of it you have new life. I’m hoping that that’s where we are, that this is just the labor part. It’s necessary pain to bring in something new.”
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