Nicole Beharie: ‘Miss Juneteenth’

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Actress, Nicole Beharie. Photo by Warwick Saint.

This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes actress Nicole Beharie, whose performance in “Miss Juneteenth” has earned her an Spirit Award nomination. Beharie plays Turquoise, a struggling mother who is trying to build a better life for her daughter by entering her into a beauty pageant. Beharie’s other work includes roles in the films “American Violet,” “Shame” and the series “Sleepy Hollow.” Beharie tells The Treatment she enjoys the tension between a character’s outward behavior and her true inner life, and she discusses the compromises the character Turquoise navigates as she tries to gain access and agency for her daughter.

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. I'm Elvis Mitchell. My guest, Nicole Beharie, first caught my attention in "American Violet." She's gone on to do work with our friend Steve McQueen in "Shame" and made a big splash in "Sleepy Hollow." One of the things I think is really interesting about "Miss Juneteenth" is that it's basically a bunch of little mysteries where we think we know people, and as more time goes past in the script, we realize we don't know them at all. 

Nicole Beharie: You know, I love that perspective. I have never thought of it that way: what the presentational version of the person is, and then going a little bit deeper, a few steps closer, seeing what's behind the curtain. There is an aspect of that; I think that's something I'm attracted to. And like everything that I do, I always want to know, what's really going on in there? 

KCRW: It's the idea of peeling back pieces, and as an actor, making it about how much you choose to reveal, because you often play characters, who don't give us everything.

Beharie: I kind of feel like that's what actors and artists are doing: trying to understand what this thing is, reflecting life or what it could be or what people think it should be. And I feel like a lot of the characters that I've played, and maybe it's something that I'm sort of navigating, is what's the social persona, versus what's going on inside? And also just what makes a person who they are? I walk down the street and see 10 people and wonder what their kitchen is like, and what their childhood was like, and why that particular pair of jeans.

KCRW: In the beginning of the movie, [Turquoise] is sort of looking back and at the end of the movie, she's looking forward, but in both cases, there's a yellow dress in the frame with her. And I was thinking about having that kind of thing as a talisman, and how you responded to it, because she really is projecting back with it when we first meet her and at the end, she's kind of distant from it.

Beharie: We have two versions of the mother and then we have the youngest daughter. So we have three different generations or versions of the Jones women, right? I think a big part or a theme in the movie is freedom and progress, like access and what that means. And Turquoise's mother's generation would have seen using her beauty and using a pageant as the only way, marrying up, the only option that she gives to her daughter. And then Turquoise is providing the only option that she can see for her daughter, and like you said, it's connected to this idea that this yellow dress, has been the ship to freedom. 

Juneteenth is June 19, 1865. That's two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation. There were some enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas, that were finally informed that they had in fact been freed, and they can go live and start a new life. And I think that's kind of where the movie ends, like she can now create a new life with this agency that she's found in the exact same place, just with a new perspective. 

KCRW: There's something very specific to Texas women of color, in fact, that makes them different from any place. Nobody talks about Juneteenth the way they do in Texas, where there's a recognition of what it is and what it represents, and what it represents the people of color there and also that sense of pride. And I'm just gonna say that pride is realized very differently in these three generations of women. It's almost as if Turquoise is saying, No, I'm going to sound like where I grew up. I'm not going to try to pretend I'm something different than this.

Beharie: Yeah, these are subtle things that you may be picking up on because you're familiar with the culture. The idea that the key to freedom is assimilation or becoming something other than and then Turquoise feeling like by choosing not to do those things after she won, maybe that's the reason why her life didn't turn out the way she wanted it to. So she's keeping her daughter away from that. So is it a cautionary tale? Is it hopeful at the end? It is hopeful, but there is a price to not playing along in the prescribed manner.

Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment.

KCRW: There's this constant price being paid by Black women, especially Black women in Texas, trying to figure out how you're going to navigate this world. One of the most telling and heartbreaking scenes was where we get to see what Turquoise probably went through years earlier, something Kai's going through, when they're being given etiquette lessons and you're thinking: this is the 21st century, not even in Texas society does anybody use a salad fork anymore. 

Beharie: There's this scene that they're sharing this really sweet moment where Turquoise is talking about her experience during the pageant, and she's pressing, which is straightening with a hot comb, Kai's hair right on the stove, straightening her kinky afro, beautiful, forcing the hair into making it straight, so it's more acceptable, or what we perceive as closer to the Western standard of beautiful. At the beginning of the pageant, she has her hair straightened, but then she goes in the back, right before she does her poem, she puts water on her hair. And once you put water on curly hair that's been straightened, it's going to go back to its original natural state. And so then she has this afro again, and she comes out as herself, a defiant moment, a rebellious moment, but it's also a moment of self acceptance. 

KCRW: As an artist, how much of your past do you hold onto versus the idea of looking at the future? 

Beharie: I'm definitely a let go kind of gal.  As the movie's come out, the idea of freedom and the past and the country in the past and what we've all been navigating for the last year or so, I feel like that's been more resonant with me. My family was in the service, so we just kept it moving. I'm a little bit of a rolling stone, so I don't have a problem with letting things go. But I do think that there's something in the story in this moment that makes me think about the pageantry, or even the greatness of our culture, and America, and the things that we hold on to versus being in the present and what we can change in the future.

KCRW: That becomes about a kind of freedom to me: are you free to be in the moment and in the present, and look forward to the future versus being shackled by the past, because that's what freedom is about, ownership of self. There's a scene early on, when somebody says, well, Turquoise didn't do what people expected her to do. That's actually something that really is kind of a bomb that's left unexplored in a lot of ways, which I liked. 

Beharie: It's the quiet tragedy in this story, which is an acknowledgment that even though she doesn't want to play by those rules, she's aware that that's the cost, and that's the price you have to pay. And so she's willing to put her daughter through that in order to gain agency and access and also just for her own ego.

KCRW: She's at war with herself, because there's a part of her who is self aware enough to know that this is a bad thing to do. But then she gets caught up in that tide of well, if we're going to do this, we should do this. And also, her daughter is a performer and an artist in her own right. 

Beharie: Yeah, yeah, she's re-mixing all the stuff, which I think is so inspiring. And it's really reflective of what we're seeing in the world right now as people just bringing everything together, sampling this and mixing it with that, and that sort of innovation of generations now and to come that I found really exciting about the script. 

There's something that you said about it being a bad thing to do. I don't think that she feels like it's a bad thing to do. I don't think that's how it feels to her. And maybe that's just that whole actor not judging the character thing. 

KCRW: Clearly bad is the wrong word to use, but she's aware of her daughter's own personhood, so that I just thought that she wouldn't submit to that tradition. She's so good at standing her ground in the way she navigates that bar, and she's also a very generous, spirited person.

Beharie: But what other access does she have to scholarship or to that kind of money to provide quickly for her daughter? So again, it's, more like: these are the keys to my agency; this is what we have to do to make this thing happen. I definitely think that she sees who her daughter is, but also, again, when I was in my freedom, it got me in trouble, so we got to curtail some of that and add some salad forks in there, straighten your hair, and then we can assimilate.  She's protecting her from the heartbreak of being truly free, that could be could be kind of dangerous, too. 

There's also a light theme again, it's not even really spoken. There's this: whether it's religious or just societal pressure of what happens with a young woman's blossoming sexuality and her body, how you figure out how to navigate that, and what you're taught and told, and the fear that parents have about their children changing. 

I'm older than Alexis Chikaeze, who's brilliant, and it was her first movie. I'm working with this young actress, and it was my first time thinking like, oh, wow, my mother must feel like this about me like this blossoming sensuality when I was in my mid teens, like, what the hell do you do with that?  How do you keep it all in the box so they behave? What do you do with all those hormones? No, you can't wear those shorts; I can wear those shorts, but you can't wear those shorts, and especially if it's a parallel or a mirror of your body and your face. It's really almost like a value judgment on your own feelings about your body and yourself. 

KCRW: That blossoming that you're talking about in that moment over the birthday cake; she still sees a little girl there because she's just seeing the face; she's not seeing the body. With the candles and the cake, it's a moment of celebration, one of the few moments of celebration they get to have because mostly it's just about them trying to maintain.

Beharie: That's my favorite scene in the movie because it is a moment of joy, despite the wretched day that Turquoise had. I mean, she just presented a melted cake to her daughter, and her husband is in jail. It's like everything is falling apart. And her daughter wants nothing to do with this really disappointing celebration. But I think this moment gave us an opportunity to show what's there beyond the material. The thing that keeps them together is this tenderness. 

It's funny because as you know, in this past year, we've all been through a lot. And I've noticed minority communities like Black Twitter, whenever something horrible happens, the first thing we go to is humor, right? This is the way that we deal, process, cope. I'm not saying that anyone's a mono-culture, so not necessarily everyone, but it's something that I've noticed. And I feel like you see that here, where everything is technically terrible, and then we just have a food fight, and remember, Hey, I really love you. And I need you to remember how much I love you, and you love me and that we're alive and everything is okay. And none of this matters, we'll be fine tomorrow.



Rebecca Mooney