REVIEW: Miss Juneteenth [2020]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 103 minutes
    Release Date: June 19th, 2020 (USA)
    Studio: Vertical Entertainment
    Director(s): Channing Godfrey Peoples
    Writer(s): Channing Godfrey Peoples

Stop worrying about THEM.

There’s nothing wholly original about the narrative within Channing Godfrey Peoples‘ feature directorial debut Miss Juneteenth. You can probably rattle off ten films right now that depict a down-on-their-luck parent desperately trying to do right by the child they had too young to ever do right by themselves. These parents are so driven to ensure their kid doesn’t follow in their footsteps that they ultimately push them away—refusing to see their son or daughter’s true self beneath a projection of what they wished they had become before everything seemingly fell apart. Just because Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie) and her daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) may follow that well-worn formula, however, doesn’t mean their journey can’t still feel fresh thanks to a powerful central performance and authentically lived-in environment.

Such environments go further than simple settings too. More than just Fort Worth, Texas, this film is about being Black in a country of so-called “American Dreams” that still elude most Black citizens. Local BBQ joint owner Wayman (Marcus M. Mauldin) is quick to remind Turquoise of this reality just as a tour guide through the Juneteenth museum educates young Kai about why it took two extra years for slaves in the Lone Star State to know they were free. It’s also why Turquoise worked so hard to win the holiday’s beauty pageant crown fifteen years ago. To be victorious meant earning a full scholarship to any historically Black college despite a thrift store dress and alcoholic mother. Even when achieved, however, some dreams forever remain an illusion.

So here we are meeting Turquoise as she readies for the pageant again, this time as the hopeful mother of a fifteen-year old prospective contender. Does Kai want to participate? No. She’d much rather tryout for her school’s contemporary dance team—one with the type of routines that every ultra-conservative, etiquette-crazed Miss Juneteenth judge would instantly frown upon sight unseen. But that wouldn’t give Kai the chance to escape the struggles her mother endured and continues fighting as a single parent working two jobs without being able to rely on her estranged husband (Kendrick Sampson‘s Ronnie) to live up to his responsibilities. Turquoise knows what it took to win and places her reluctant daughter onto that trajectory. She skips electric bills for this chance and Kai knows it.

And that’s where Peoples’ film stands alone beside the many other similar versions of this story. The synopsis talks about Kai being “rebellious,” but a more accurate word would be beholden. She knows how much this means to her mother and tries so hard to have conversations that will prove she wants college and a future too—just not on the same terms. But Turquoise is too caught up on her missed opportunity to listen. She’s too blinded by what happened to her to see that Kai has already learned from her “mistakes” despite any presumptions she’s conjured to the contrary. The simple fact that Turquoise isn’t her own mother (Lori Hayes‘ Charlotte) means that Kai has more choices at her disposal. She can cut her own path.

The relationship between these two women is rendered so much deeper than you might initially expect as a result. Rather than be at war, they’re merely at odds. Kai sees everything Turquoise does for her whether paying for a birthday present instead of utilities, working double shifts to put a down payment on a dress, or selling their only means of transportation to bail her father out of jail. Kai knows that everything her mother does is for her benefit even if it all fits a mold that the latter wants alone. And it doesn’t take a lot to understand why once the curtain falls to show how Ronnie and Charlotte have failed their family. Kai participating in the pageant is therefore a gift she can give back.

It’s one that Turquoise needs too once the promise of better days inevitably falls back into old patterns since every good day with her husband or mother is an aberration—a moment of bliss threatening to trick her into forgetting the unfortunate truth of having to overcome their broken promises for her daughter’s sake. Beharie plays the role with a relatable exasperation and frustration towards the compromises she’s forced to make when her supposed support system fails and an indelible strength that proves she’s more than a pretty face who won a beauty contest. She’s more than the memory some have of her early struggles raising a child alone too. And she might just believe it if she ever takes off her crown of past regrets.

Because that’s what Miss Juneteenth is about more than anything else. Rather than focus on who Kai can become upon winning the crown, Peoples presents the possibility for who Turquoise can become if she finally relinquishes it. To find the faith that Kai will be all right regardless of the road she chooses is to find the room to exhale and choose her own way forward too. So what if she didn’t live up to the pageant organizer’s hopes? So what if she didn’t use the scholarship she earned? It doesn’t make her less of a woman or diminish the respect she demands from everyone in her life. Rather than pick Ronnie for love or her long-standing admirer Bacon (Akron Watson) for security, she can belatedly pick herself.

The time to be free from convention has arrived. Turquoise doesn’t have to exist in the same image as those other past winners who’ve gone on to do things that warrant bragging on behalf of the pageant—women shilling for an antiquated norm in absentia. Kai doesn’t have to exist in the same image that her mother strove to achieve in her own youth—sacrificing personal joy to ultimately find herself resenting a good life that will forever lack greatness. They can escape preconceptions and prove their worth through their actions. They can be trusted to do right by the people who’ve actually stood by them through thick and thin. You don’t need a salad knife or perfect grammar to be a success. You can simply be yourself.

[1] (L-R) Nicole Beharie as Turquoise and Alexis Chikaeze as Kai in the drama, “MISS JUNETEENTH,” a Vertical Entertainment release.” Photo Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment.
[2] (L-R) Nicole Beharie as Turquoise and Alexis Chikaeze as Kai in the drama, “MISS JUNETEENTH,” a Vertical Entertainment release.” Photo Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment.
[3] Kendrick Sampson as Ronnie in the drama, “MISS JUNETEENTH,” a Vertical Entertainment release.” Photo Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment.

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