Director: Channing Godfrey Peoples
Starring: Nicole Beharie, Kendrick Sampson, and Alexis Chikaeze
Premiering at Sundance in January, Miss Juneteenth is one of many independent films braving cinemas around the world, hoping for more attention than it might have had with blockbusters in the way.
This unusual arrangement is oddly fitting, given the heroine’s knack for making the best of any given situation.
Nicole Beharie delivers a stunning performance as Turquoise Jones, a single mother making ends meet in Fort Worth, Texas.
At 15, she was crowned Miss Juneteenth, a prestigious beauty pageant for young African American women with a prize of a full college scholarship.
Life got in the way of Turquoise taking that opportunity, but she works hard at various jobs to pay for her almost 15-year-old daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) to enter.
Fighting escalating obstacles and Kai’s reluctance to enter, Turquoise thinks on her feet from scene-to-scene to achieve her goals.
The pageant’s title takes its name from date celebrating the abolition of slavery in the United States.
Miss Juneteenth makes racism the setting
Rather than making racism in America the subject, Channing Godfrey Peoples’ feature debut makes it the setting.
In the lives of Turquoise and her community, institutionalised racism is a mechanism that makes everyday struggles that much harder.
We see it in the eyes of a dressmaker who hurriedly blurts out that they “don’t do lay-away”, and in the belief that the white employees at the bank will never approve you for a loan.
Turquoise says at one point “ain’t nothing wrong with The American Dream”, to which her boss (Markus M. Mauldin) retorts “ain’t no American Dream for Black Folks”.
It’s a subtle and intriguing way of portraying ongoing issues in an authentic way.
Standing against this backdrop is the story of a mother doing her best, continuing to spin plates no matter how many people in her life smash them.
Turquoise’s mother (Lori Hayes) has found salvation through religion and uses it to judge her daughter, who then has to come to her aid when she gives in to her alcohol problem.
She has a problematic on-off relationship with Kai’s father (Kendrick Sampson), a charming but untrustworthy mechanic; but also spurns the advances of wholesome funeral homeowner Bacon (Akron Watson).
At home, Kai pushes to pursue dance instead of pageants and is more interested in a boy from school than practising for the event.
Pageants have never been so important
These elements all conspire to make Turquoise’s life difficult, but the beacon of the pageant drives her on.
Beharie plays her character as a woman with drive, convinced that it will all be alright as long as she sticks to the plan.
No setback takes the steel from her eyes, as she flatly refuses to give in to despair.
The resilience is infectious, and her performance makes every small success enormously uplifting, even if the film’s third act offers some overly neat conclusions.
Of the many memorable co-stars on screen, Chikaeze’s Kai is the most impressive.
Far from a teenage brat, she slowly reveals a need to define herself as a young woman, to be a queen on her own terms.
She works wonderfully with Beharie, creating a mother/daughter bond based on slightly exasperated love, rather than outright conflict.
The story may lack surprises, but it’s the way in which familiar notes are played that keeps you watching.
Throughout Miss Juneteenth, Turquoise is questioned about her choices, to which she replies “I make it work”.
Like 2018’s criminally overlooked Support The Girls, Writer/Director Peoples’ showcases the strength it takes for so many to simply keep the wheels turning.
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