Review: Miss Juneteenth

If the first two thirds of Miss Juneteenth, the beautifully realized debut feature film from writer/director Channing Godfrey Peoples, feel a bit quiet and underdeveloped, please do yourself the favor of hanging in there to see how it all comes delicately and triumphantly together by the time the credits role. Starring Nicole Beharie as Turquoise, a one-time pageant queen now raising a teenage daughter in the same Texas town where she grew up, Miss Juneteenth is at once a distinctly personal story about finding one’s path forward when your life doesn’t exactly go as planned and a universally moving reminder of the turmoil, durability and beauty of mother/daughter relationships.

Working several jobs to provide for her daughter, we meet Turquoise as she’s scrubbing the bathroom at a BBQ joint with deep ties to the community—photos of local Black celebs hang on the wall, including one of her, crowned Miss Juneteenth 2004. The annual pageant, a scholarship competition for teenage girls that includes etiquette lessons, a talent portion and of course, requires a ball gown for the final judging, is a mainstay in the community and typically sets up its winners for success into college and beyond. Turquoise seems to be the exception; as a pageant official recounts the successes of past winners—a Civil Rights lawyer, a Senator’s wife, etc.—we realize that Kai (Alexis Chikaeze, making her film debut), just turning fifteen and eligible for the pageant herself, came along shortly after Turquoise’s big win, throwing a wrench in her plans for college, a career and who knows what else.

But redemption is still within reach as far as Turquoise is concerned, and she signs Kai up for the pageant despite her protestations; Kai is more interested in qualifying for the dance team, studying routines and creating her own, than competing in a pageant that’s more important to her mom than her. But Turquoise persists, working extra shifts to earn the money for the new ball gown she wants Kai to wear on the big day and coaching Kai through her recitation of Dr. Maya Angelou’s famous poem “Phenomenal Woman” for her talent (it’s no accident that this is the same talent that Turquoise performed when it was her on the pageant stage). Kai’s father, Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson) tends to side with Kai on the idea of the pageant, but can’t ignore the opportunities a win could offer her, so he promises to pitch in on the expenses where he can. Though not formally together, Turquoise and Ronnie remain romantic, even as Bacon (Akron Watson), her boss at the funeral home where she touches up the deceased clients, holds out hope that she’ll have him instead.

Watching Beharie persevere through the film’s first two acts is a study in subtlety; every note of her performance is imbued with the weight she carries with her every waking moment—the pressures of raising a well-rounded daughter, of navigating a fragile relationship with her own mother, of the expectations she had for herself and those she feels from others. By the time she finally tells Bacon she can’t accept him, the moment she says, “I just want something for myself,” there’s a nearly palpable exhalation of tension, Turquoise finally giving herself the space to come out from under all that burdens her. Kai, too, finally comes around, participating in the pageant and even reciting the famous poem for her talent portion (with a spin of her own that, in less skilled hands, might have fallen flat; instead, it is nearly transcendent).

Miss Juneteenth is being released on June 19, the date that inspires its title as well as the real-world holiday that celebrates the date in 1865 when Texas slaves finally received word they’d been freed (by an Emancipation Proclamation signed more than two years prior). In 2020, the holiday is finally being recognized for its importance in the history of a country that continues to grapple with systemic racism and inequity. The film—a story about many things, chief among them the ability to free oneself of the expectations, burdens and guilt that hold us back from living the life we came here to live—is a more than worthy way to acknowledge this day, this moment in our collective reckoning. That, and donating to the #BlackLivesMatter organization of your choice.

Miss Juneteenth is now available via VOD platforms.