Synopsis: A former beauty queen and single mom prepares her rebellious teenage daughter for the “Miss Juneteenth” pageant.
Stars: Nicole Beharie, Kendrick Sampson, Alexis Chikaeze, Lori Hayes
Director: Channing Godfrey Peoples
Running Length: 103 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: To many, movies are simply escapist entertainment that are nice distractions from our daily lives. We live in such tumultuous times with harsh realities and difficult uncertainties, why not check out for an hour or two and leave that all behind to lose yourself in some fantasy – would anyone really blame us? Then there are those, like myself, who feel that film can also be a mirror of sorts to what is going on in our world and give us insight, however small, into another person’s experience we may have no idea about. It can’t replicate that experience but if we are cognizant enough to recognize it, we can do our homework and learn more on our own time after the credits have ended.
The new film Miss Juneteenth is a good example of representation to a widely observed holiday that I was woefully uneducated to before seeing the film. Like I’m sure many of you, Juneteenth was something I had heard about but never really understood the depth of its significance as a holiday to the black and African American communities. Juneteenth, also known as the state holiday Emancipation Day in Texas, commemorates the date June 19, 1865, when the last enslaved African Americans were finally liberated in Texas, well over two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and it became law. In recent years there has been an increasing call for Juneteenth to be recognized as a national holiday and a number of organizations now include it as a paid holiday for their employees. (My company just announced they are recognizing it as such in 2021). Though Miss Juneteenth was written and filmed before the renewed calls for social justice reform over the past month and is far from a politically charged movie, its release is well-timed and features strong representation throughout the production.
When she was a teenager, Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie, Shame) won the Miss Juneteenth pageant in her Texas hometown, a long-standing, high-profile event that awards full scholarships to traditionally black universities to its winners, many of whom have gone on to be prominent members of the community both locally and nationally. Now a single mother to Kai (Alexis Chikaze), Turquoise makes ends meet by managing a local watering hole and working as a funeral home make-up artist. As the film opens, the Miss Juneteenth pageant is coming up and Turquoise pushes her shy teenager into competing for the crown, hoping her daughter can win despite the odds being stacked against them both. Maybe she wants her daughter to win just so she has the money to afford college…or maybe she sees a possible win as a redemption to fulfill the promise she couldn’t when she held the title.
Far from being a simple pageant movie featuring the typical mother-daughter strife throughout, Miss Juneteenth may follow a familiar trajectory on the surface but does so in refreshing ways. Director Channing Godfrey Peoples is from Texas and is clearly writing from a place she has great insight to. There’s an air of authenticity throughout, even in the inauthentic way some of the women behave toward Turquoise and Kai, judging the mother for not taking a traditional post-pageant route and letting that influence what they think of the daughter. An added layer of complexity comes with the relationship between Turquoise and her own mother Charlotte (Lori Hayes), a churchgoing, God-fearing woman that has her own demons hiding in the shadows.
If there’s one place that Peoples struggles with its convincing the audience that Turquoise would put up with some of the men in her life for as long as she does. The father of her daughter (Kendrick Sampson) seems to be stuck in a pattern of disappointment and it feels out of her independent character for Turquoise to bend to his charms, especially when it begins to come between the dream of a future for their daughter. Her boss at the mortuary is also pursuing her and that story line is thinly developed…and maybe it’s just because the dynamic between Beharie and Chikaze is so much more interesting that whenever they aren’t on screen together you’re just waiting for their next scene. Only Marcus M. Mauldin, as the world-weary and wise owner of the bar she helps run, found a way into the narrative that made an impact.
The film is all about Beharie, though, and it’s a performance you aren’t going to soon forget. An actress that has shown up in smaller but memorable roles in movies and television over the past decade, she hasn’t truly made that big leap yet but this could and should get her into the conversation for major work in the future. It’s a difficult character to navigate because it would be easy to make Turquoise sharp with pointy edges so it’s a credit to Beharie and Peoples that they’ve given her depth and marked clarity – this is a woman in full control of her situation and isn’t someone that needs to be saved. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Miss Juneteenth isn’t a film leading to a huge climax of anguished realization with a token “Oscar clip” emotional outburst. Instead, Peoples has sprinkled little gems of scenes throughout the picture, allowing a number of actors to instill some knowledge upon others, the audience included.
Watching to the very end showed how much of a community effort it was to make the film – I can’t remember ever seeing a movie list the hundreds of extras involved in the credits. Small touches like this, including a tuneful collection of songs for the soundtrack and location shooting add to the charm of it all. Like I said when we started, if you aren’t familiar with the Juneteenth holiday the pageant celebrates, do you homework before; while the movie gives some background there is more to be known that is important to discover on your own.