VOD film review: Miss Juneteenth
Matthew Turner | On 25, Sep 2020
Director: Channing Godfrey Peoples
Cast: Nicole Beharie, Kendrick Sampson, Alexis Chikaeze, Liz Mikel, Marcus Mauldin, Jaime Matthis
This engaging indie drama stars Nicole Beharie as Turquoise Jones, a single mother and former beauty queen raising her 15 year old daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) in Fort Worth, Texas. Fixated on the idea that Kai should follow in her footsteps and win the Miss Juneteenth pageant, Turquoise works two jobs and spends every penny she has on dresses and entry fees, seemingly unaware that her reluctant daughter would much rather concentrate on trying out for the school dance team.
The debut feature from writer-director Channing Godfrey Peoples, Miss Juneteenth refers to a real pageant, which derives its name from the 19th June holiday, commemorating the day in 1865 when Texas slaves learned they were free, over two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Held in cities throughout Texas, the competition comes with a full college scholarship, and this drives Turquoise’s determination for her daughter to succeed, as opposed to vainly and vicariously recapturing her own former glory.
There have been plenty of movies about pushy mothers entering their daughters in beauty contests, but Peoples brings a powerful sense of relatable realism to her story. What’s interesting is the ways in which it acknowledges the clichés of the genre and then kicks against them – for example, it includes the expected moment where Kai asserts her own identity on stage, but it doesn’t play out the way it might have in another film.
Beharie is simply terrific in the film, delivering a heartfelt and compassionate performance that will almost certainly lead to greater things. Chikaeze is equally good, generating touching mother-daughter chemistry with Beharie, and there’s strong support from Kendrick Sampson as Kai’s father, who’s still in their lives but too unreliable for Turquoise to consider properly taking him back.
Alongside Beharie’s performance, the film’s key strength lies in its extraordinary sense of place and community, from the detailed depiction of the BBQ joint-slash-bar where Turquoise works to the general sense that everybody knows each other’s business, with one particularly persistent rumour following Turquoise wherever she goes.
Peoples’ script makes a number of strongly resonant points, not least in a powerful speech from Turquoise’s boss (Marcus Mauldin) – “Ain’t no American Dream for black folks” – telling her to hold on tight to what she’s got.
That’s not to say that the film is entirely without flaws. It has a few pacing issues, while some of the dialogue is often mumbled to the point of incomprehensibility. However, those are minor quibbles that won’t spoil the overall impact of this assured debut, which marks out Peoples as a writer-director to watch. Here’s hoping casting directors have been paying attention during the coronavirus pandemic, because Beharie ought to be a huge star.