There’s a moment in “Miss Juneteenth” where Nicole Beharie’s character, Turquoise, receives the worst news imaginable. Her estranged husband and the father of her 15-year-old daughter Kai admits that he doesn’t have the money to help pay for Kai’s pageant gown as he’d promised. For Turquoise, the Miss Juneteenth pageant is not just a pageant. It’s a chance for her daughter to win a full-ride college scholarship and, ultimately, escape a life of struggle and stagnation in Fort Worth, Texas. In other words, the pageant is everything.
And yet instead of shouting at him ― which she has every right to do ― Turquoise merely stares into space as he offers up his weak apology, her expression implacable, tears welling up but never quite falling. Without words, without movement, Beharie is able to convey with subtlety and gravitas the specific, painful emotion of having to keep it together, not because you want to but because it is a necessity for survival.
This scene and many others in “Miss Juneteenth” make up one of the most critically acclaimed on-screen performances of last year. As Turquoise, Beharie was also starring in the first major role we’d seen her in for some time, after the actor stepped away from Hollywood to focus on her health and figure out her place in the industry. But don’t call it a comeback.
If you study the trajectory of Beharie’s career, particularly the kinds of characters she has played, a theme begins to emerge. The 36-year-old actor has a skill for portraying the proverbial “strong Black woman” — a single mother falsely accused of drug trafficking in “American Violet,” the dutiful and supportive wife of baseball legend Jackie Robinson in “42,” or a tough-as-nails sheriff’s lieutenant battling supernatural forces in “Sleepy Hollow.”
Perhaps in another actor’s hands, the Black women she has played since her feature film debut in 2008’s “American Violet” would have been defined as “strong” and “strong” alone. But Beharie imbues her characters with depth and nuance that’s always subtle, always real, always captivating no matter how big or small the role. To Beharie, portraying the full range of a woman shouldn’t really be that hard or unique of a concept to grasp.
“I feel like every woman that’s doing anything — child-rearing, -bearing, working — is a strong, self-fulfilled woman,” Beharie told me over the phone one afternoon in January.
“But there’s the notion that there is no tenderness or that there’s no scar tissue, that you just kind of persevere. So this character was an opportunity to show that yes, she’s doing all of the things and she is technically ‘strong’ and doing so much on her own, but that there is a cost to it. That there’s an emotional cost, there’s a cost in isolation there,” she said, referring to Turquoise.
Beharie may understand that emotional cost intimately. In 2016, she left the Fox supernatural procedural “Sleepy Hollow” after health issues and then conflict with the makers of the show that left her unhappy with the direction her character was going in. Beharie revealed in a New York Times interview last year that while working on the series, which premiered in 2013, both she and her white male co-star fell ill with the same sickness roughly around the same time. While he was granted ample leave to receive the treatment he needed, she was expected to keep showing up on set. And she did, only for her health to further deteriorate along with, it seems, her relationship with those behind the scenes. She experienced what so many Black women in the entertainment industry — any industry, really — go through, when advocating for or asserting themselves leads to their being labeled as “difficult.”
During our conversation, when I began to ask her about how her stint on “Sleepy Hollow” affected her, I couldn’t help but add that I was a huge fan of the show when she was on it.
“Why? Can I ask you why?” she responded.
I explained that I was a huge fan of sci-fi and genre fiction, everything from “Doctor Who” to “Lord of the Rings,” but that “Sleepy Hollow” filled a space no one else was really occupying at the time, certainly not on network television: It was a smart, fun, supernatural show that didn’t take itself too seriously and yet didn’t sacrifice nuanced character development for the sake of plot, a show that centered on a Black female lead and featured a diverse cast of actors in a genre that was overwhelmingly white and male.
I didn’t go into the weekly Monday night watch parties I had with my friends, nor my impassioned rants about the show’s necessity on the weekly pop culture podcast I used to host, nor the fact that writing about and analyzing the show in its early seasons was a huge part of what spurred 23-year-old me on to pursue my career as a culture writer. Instead, I tried to inelegantly pivot to my next question, lest the true depths of my fangirl-dom come through, but Beharie stopped me mid-sentence.
“I want to thank you for saying that, thank you for supporting it,” she said. “Because, honestly, I know fans of the show found a lot of hope in seeing that diversity and then saw how it kind of broke down. You know, if it weren’t for you guys, then there wouldn’t be [shows like] ‘Lovecraft Country.’”
Even if it wasn’t “Sleepy Hollow” alone that ushered in a new age of Black genre film and television, its initial success — in 2013 it was Fox’s highest-rated fall drama premiere since “24” — added to a growing online conversation about the kinds of stories and characters audiences respond to. Beharie can appreciate that although her time on “Sleepy Hollow” was difficult, it wasn’t for nothing.
“People saying what they say online helps creators to realize, ‘Hey, you know, there’s a place for this.’ And there’s a market for this and our entertainment should be diverse. Biodiversity is essential to thriving, you know? If you’re making soup with only one thing in it, it’s not going to taste great. So thank you for saying that.”
And yet, despite that silver lining, despite that arguable impact, the actor still faced a period after leaving the show in 2016 during which she wasn’t acting, but healing, both physically and emotionally. Beharie said that was a “challenging” time. She started asking herself serious questions about her life and her career. Questions like: “What’s your purpose? What are you doing here? What am I doing wrong? What am I doing right? How do you want to move forward? Do you want to move forward doing this?”
“It was a really powerful time. I was living in New York. I could be reflective, almost like the time that we’re in now, but without, you know, the pandemic,” Beharie explained. “It’s funny because everyone’s having these conversations. Years later it was Me Too and now we’re having a reckoning in Hollywood about race, but I was having those conversations then. That’s why I was getting in trouble.”
To hear the discussion now about the struggles Black actors go through in film and TV, the lack of diversity they must contend with both in front of and behind the scenes, feels like a kind of “confirmation” of her experience, Beharie said. Eventually, she returned to acting, first in 2018 with a role in the crime drama “Monsters and Men” and then in 2019 with a supporting role in Netflix’s “Black Mirror” (she had previously been considered for a role in the sci-fi anthology series but couldn’t take it due to conflicts with “Sleepy Hollow” filming).
In the “Black Mirror” episode, titled “Striking Vipers,” Beharie portrays the wife of a man carrying out an affair in a hyper-realistic virtual reality video game. Beharie turns in one of the best moments in the episode, a monologue in which she calls out her husband for his selfishness, and ultimately takes control of the situation. Once again, the actor managed to take a role that could have been one-note and turned it into a symphony of a performance.
At one point during our conversation, I asked Beharie why she wanted to be an actor, and she laughed. “I’m still trying to just figure it out. Honestly, I love this thing. I love everything. I love the moment from ‘action’ to ‘cut.’”
Acting initially entered Beharie’s life as a means to an end, an act of necessity, a way out, much like the pageant is for her character in “Miss Juneteenth.” Born in West Palm Beach, Florida, to a West Indian mother and a father who was a member of the Foreign Service, Beharie spent much of her early life living in countries all over the world, from the U.K., to Nigeria, to Panama, to Jamaica. In her teens, she settled in South Carolina where she attended high school, first in Orangeburg and then in Greenville at a school she hoped would give her more opportunities, the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities.
“You had to audition. I was going to go in for writing and journalism or theater. I think I auditioned for both actually, and the theater school let me in. And it’s kind of just been that way,” Beharie said. After high school, she auditioned for the prestigious acting school Juilliard, not entirely sure what would come of it.
“Even with Juilliard, I was like, ‘I don’t really know if that’s going to work out.’ I auditioned for that, but I applied to mass communication schools and international relations schools at the same time.”
Of course, she got into Juilliard and from there embarked upon a career now over a decade long. Amid the struggles, it’s Black women who have often provided the inspiration and motivation for her to keep going ― women like Lisa Gay Hamilton, Alfre Woodard (a co-star in her feature film debut), Lynn Whitfield (especially in “Eve’s Bayou”), Eartha Kitt, Audre Lorde, Nina Simone, and the late, great Cicely Tyson (to whom she dedicated the first script she ever wrote).
“I’m very interested in what it took for them to navigate these spaces and also it’s nice to see that the falls and things that happen are par for the course,” Beharie said. “We talked a little bit about what happened in ‘Sleepy Hollow’; that’s not new. You look at Eartha Kitt [and] other people’s stories and you’re like, ‘Oh, OK. So it goes down like that.’ Like, that’s what happens. It’s unfortunate. And you hope that you can make it better for the next generation and that awareness spreads and everything, but you might have to bear the brunt of some things.”
While Beharie has certainly been through the fire, it seems that now she’s finally receiving her much-deserved flowers. This year, following the numerous glowing reviews, she won a Gotham Independent Film Award for Best Actress for her role in “Miss Juneteenth,” as well as an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Lead Actress. She’s set to star in a new Amazon Prime series, “Solos,” alongside Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren and Anne Hathaway.
She’s not letting this new wave of interest in her and her career faze her one way or another, though.
“I’m just honored that there’s enough of a consensus that people are like, ‘Hey! That was all right. What she did was all right.’ That, I mean I’m not going to lie, that’s very nice. It’s a wacky, weird world we live in right now. So although there’s this sort of bittersweetness to it, I’m excited.”
But while grateful for the praise, Beharie isn’t interested in “acting for sport.” Obviously, it’s a weird time to even be thinking about accolades. The movie industry has had to contend with a COVID-19 landscape where huge films are repeatedly pushed down the release calendar, where streaming services are replacing the in-theater experience and where movie productions have had to get creative to shoot in pandemic-safe environments. While there have been grumbles from people who believe her performance in “Miss Juneteenth” was unfairly snubbed by the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild, Beharie seems to see the current moment differently. In the industry and in her career specifically, it’s a chance to focus on making great independent films and to find roles that offer her the opportunity to play interesting characters.
“I hope it just garners more opportunities for all of us who are working in the indie space and doing what we love. That’s all it is, you know, for me. I’m not like, ‘Yeah, I’m trying to get this award! And that award!’ Not really. It’s really nice but if I did it for that, I wouldn’t have made anything.”
Beharie is playing a long game; she’s far more interested in impact. In a world where “diversity” has become a buzzword so overused as to lose meaning, her concept of true diversity lies in something bigger than herself, bigger than Hollywood. Coming out of her time of exile and reflection, the actor has no regrets, no animosity, just a genuine hope that she can contribute to a new, more equitable world.
“Whatever the things are that I went through, I hope I’ve made it easier and clearer for the next generation of people coming up,” she said. “I think that’s a part of it, too, hoping that whatever I go through or navigate, my victories and failures are not just for myself. They’re for the collective.”