These days, Winston-Salem native Neil Creque Williams is working on different projects between Los Angeles, California, and Texas, but he says his heart is always in North Carolina.

His parents Drs. Barry Williams and Halimena Creque still live in Winston-Salem.

Williams is a producer of the film “Miss Juneteenth” that will be highlighted during the 16th annual Juneteenth Festival in a partnership with Aperture Cinema and Triad Cultural Arts Inc., the festival’s organizer.

He said he is excited to be working with Aperture and Triad Cultural Arts and spoke of the importance of supporting Winston-Salem organizations.

“It is really great for me to point to the hometown theater and the hometown community and say, ‘Everybody come and see the movie here,’” Williams said.

“Miss Juneteenth” will open June 19 in select theaters, digital and on demand. Aperture will show the film as part of its virtual cinema.

The film tells the story of a former beauty queen and hard-working single mom who prepares her rebellious teenage daughter for the Miss Juneteenth pageant, hoping to keep her from repeating the same mistakes in life that she made. It is distributed by Vertical Entertainment.

Channing Godfrey Peoples, who is married to Williams, is both director and writer for the film. Cast members include Nicole Beharie, Kendrick Sampson and Alexis Chikaeze.

This year, the annual Juneteenth Festival in Winston-Salem will go virtual because of COVID-19.

People will be able to watch the virtual event from 3 to 5 p.m. June 20 on Triad Cultural Arts’ Facebook page or on WSTV Channel 13.

This year’s theme is “New Season of Freedom.” It “reflects the new challenges that undermine freedom and justice for black and brown people,” according to a statement from Triad Cultural Arts.

Organizers of the 16th annual Juneteenth Festival are celebrating the 155th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Juneteenth commemorates the June 19, 1865, announcement of the abolition of slavery in Texas, and the emancipation of enslaved African Americans throughout the former Confederate States of America.

“This is the 155th year of freedom, and we just felt that we could not let this milestone event go unnoticed, particularly now with everything that’s going on in the country,” Cheryl Harry, founding director of Triad Cultural Arts, said. “We think that it’s a way for people to really learn to value and appreciate diversity. We are calling this cultural nourishment.”

Hometown pride

For Williams, it’s like a full-circle moment having “Miss Juneteenth” opening in Winston-Salem.

Five years ago, RiverRun International Film Festival played the short film “David’s Reverie” that he directed and Godfrey Peoples produced, and the short film “Red” by Godfrey Peoples was shown at Aperture during the 2015 National Black Theatre Festival.

“Some of my fondest moments are showing our movies in Winston,” Williams said.

He has been excited about “Miss Juneteenth” from the beginning and mentioned that a lot of people still don’t have an understanding of Juneteenth.

“I really believed in this film and believed in the story about Juneteenth, and it’s an opportunity to see a black woman leading a film, dealing with themes of emancipation and what does freedom look like now in 2020,” he said.

Williams has liked making movies since he was in second grade and showed them to classmates. One of his first film classes was during a UNC School of the Arts High School summer session through its film school.

“Winston was always like the City of the Arts to me, as they say, and I am very grateful to be a product of this community, and I’m glad to bring it full circle,” he said.

A graduate of Bishop McGuiness Catholic High School in Kernersville, Williams went to college at Duke University where he graduated in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in public policy, a minor in economics and a film and video certificate.

He met Godfrey Peoples at the University of Southern California’s film school and they have been working together for a decade.

“We were in L.A. and probably four years after working together, we were like let’s make this movie,” he said.

Godfrey Peoples started writing the script for “Miss Juneteenth” in 2013 while they were in a writing group.

“In 2014, we left L.A. and started that process of developing the film in Texas,” he said.

Because it was a first film, they relied on support from various nonprofit organizations, including the Sundance Institute, the organizer of the Sundance Film Festival.

Williams participated in the Sundance Producing Lab and Fellowship in 2017 and Godfrey Peoples was in the Sundance Screenwriters Intensive in 2015.

“Miss Juneteenth” had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and, before the coronavirus pandemic, the film was set to be released in theaters June 19.

Celebrating emancipation

Harry is excited about the 16th annual Juneteenth Festival’s virtual lineup but also sad that there won’t be the usual face-to-face interaction for festival-goers this year.

“We had really begun to build some great momentum,” she said. “Now, we’re having to go virtual. Next year, we’re just going to have to come back really strong.”

Organizers hope to maximize the festival’s virtual experience by offering a celebration toolkit on the Triad Cultural Arts’ website at www.triadculture.org and its Facebook page.

There’s a social media challenge for people to post pictures of their oldest relatives, information on how to host a festival watch party, Juneteenth recipes, a copy of General Orders 32 that ended slavery in North Carolina and Genealogy 101. In addition, there’s a student toolkit with stories, coloring pages, word searches and simple face painting.

As part of the festival’s spotlight on the “Miss Juneteenth” film, Rashad Little of Candid Yams Kickback will interview Neil Creque Williams.

A special Black Lives Matter Movement presentation will offer background music from mezzo soprano Tichina Vaughn who reinterpreted the lyrics to “Strange Fruit;” Donovan Livingston of Wake Forest University, providing contextual introduction to the presentation; Leah Hauser, a student and poet; and photography by Owens Daniels, Tommy Priest and Eboni Ellis.

Other festival activities include music and dance, and a painting demonstration by Leo Rucker.

“You will actually be able to watch him paint one of Winston-Salem’s most treasured, historic sites,” Harry said. “And we’re going to do an interview with Stephanie Tyson and Vivian Joiner from Sweet Potatoes.”

At 8 p.m. there will be Juke Joint After Party, featuring Genre with a special tribute to jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis Jr. and other performers.

fdaniel@wsjournal.com

336-727-7366|

@FranDaniel

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