For Alexis Chikaeze, growing up with Nigerian parents, there were only three career options open to her. “A lot of Nigerian households know the options we are usually given is to become a doctor, a lawyer or a disgrace,” says the 18-year-old who makes her acting debut in the historical drama ‘Miss Juneteenth.’ “And although acting was always in the back of my head, I never thought I would completely act on it,” continues the actress who ran track at school and also considered becoming a professional athlete.
In February 2019, things changed for Chikaeze. A track and field injury left her questioning her career options and she started pursuing acting. In May, she signed with an agent, snagged an audition a week later and landed the audacious role starring alongside Nicole Beharie and Kendrick Sampson in the movie “Miss Juneteenth.”
“It took a bit of convincing for my dad, but my mom was pretty open to the idea and as time went on my parents became fully supportive, which I am very thankful for. I just had to go in with the mindset that you have to prove to them that this is where your passion is,” shares Chikaeze who will be attending Howard University in the fall to study theater and arts.
A film which highlights a Black pageant in Texas, she plays Nicole Behaire’s 14-year old rebellious daughter, Kai Marie Jones, who is forced to take part in the annual Miss Juneteenth pageant. It’s a scholarship competition named for the day slavery was finally abolished in Texas, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. A former beauty queen, Turquoise Jones (Behaire), was once crowned Miss Juneteenth, but never reaped the benefits the title promised. Now a struggling single mother working two jobs, she doesn’t want her daughter repeating the same mistakes in life that she made and knows participating in the competition will open doors for Kai.
“In the film, it’s actually a reverse as I have done three pageants in the past and knew the basics. I am a big fan of pageants as it built my confidence,” says Chikaeze who admits she wasn’t initially familiar with the Juneteenth holiday, which is now celebrated in most major cities across the United States.
“With my background being Nigerian, I didn’t know about Juneteenth. I have heard it here and there, but I really didn’t know about it and it wasn’t something I learned about in school, but I took the time to learn what it was and that it started in Texas and this year is the 155th anniversary.”
Filmed in Texas and directed by Channing Godfrey Peoples, who drew inspiration from the pageants she watched as a young girl, the film is an uplifting one that celebrates Black culture, Back beauty and Black excellence.
A winner of the Lone Star Award for Best Texan Film at the SXSW Film Festival, “Miss Juneteenth” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and it was a proud moment for the young actress who took her mother to the movie premiere.
“She was bawling her eyes out the entire time. I knew it was a special moment for her because my parents grew up in Nigeria and didn’t grow up with everything that we had and it made me cry seeing how emotional and how proud she was.”
Citing John Boyega, Viola Davis and Lupita Nyong’o as some of her favorite actors and “Insecure” and Ava DuVernay‘s “Queen Sugar” as her top shows, Chikaeze has set her sights on an acting career which she hopes will take off.
“Lupita speaks clearly about what she believes in and John Boyega, who is also Nigerian, stands up for what is right. I love the real-life awkwardness of ‘Insecure’ and ‘Queen Sugar’ talks about real life issues, like racism and things that are relevant and prevalent in the U.S. today.
The projects I want to be in are things that make a difference and bring awareness to certain situations. Making this movie was a bit of an educational process and the most important part, especially in light of what is going on right now, is that it shines a light on Black culture and Black history and commemorates such an important holiday that is Juneteenth.
We are important and our lives matter and I am hoping that it will make people read up on the holiday and read up on Black culture and Black history.”
“Miss Juneteenth” will debut Friday June 19th on-demand. Check out the trailer below:
By Samantha Ofole-Prince/Photos Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment