Given the recent headlines as more cities and companies declare Juneteenth as an officially recognized holiday Miss Juneteenth couldn’t have had a better release year. It doesn’t hurt that it’s a great film exploring the often complex black mother/daughter bond and the pressures of surpassing the accomplishments of the previous generation.
Burdened by the constant reminder of her failure to achieve much of anything with her life after winning the Miss Juneteenth pageant, Turquoise (Nicole Beharie, 42) doesn’t want the same for her daughter, Kai (Alexis Chikaeze). With this year’s pageant upcoming, Turquoise sees the prize of a full ride to any HBCU as a prime ticket for Kai to chart a more successful life than working as a waitress.
Kai is clearly uninterested in pageant life and has far more joy pursuing her interest in dance, but it’s clear Turquoise isn’t trying to reclaim her childhood. She simply wants Kai to get a fair shot at becoming something more than she did. Beharie has been an underrated performer and this is one of her best so far. She’s able to make Turquoise more than an overbearing oblivious parent and more of a sympathetic character who’s never been able to live a life beyond everyone’s expectations.
This marks Chikaeze‘s feature film debut, but she exudes an easy confidence and complete understanding of Kai that it rarely feels like she’s acting. Keep an eye on Chikaeze as she has the potential to be a performer worth following. Chikaeze and Beharie play off each other well and there’s a relatable parent/child nature to their scenes.
Director/Writer Channing Godfrey Peoples (Queen Sugar) makes an exciting full-length feature film debut with a patient, steady hand with an emphasis on deliberate character building. The investment pays off and Peoples shows she’s ready to take center stage in up-and-coming directorial/screenwriter circles.
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While the plot largely focuses on a pageant, Peoples touches on a number of worthwhile topics from black entrepreneurs, an ailing marriage and community pride. Peoples is able to show the flavor of the Texas community without stumbling in providing an authentic slice of life that doesn’t feel like an infomercial interlude. Just be prepared to want some barbecue and something cold to drink after a few shots of the bar.
Peoples also stages shots without laying the moment out too thick. Everything feels organic. As Turquoise sits slumped on her front stoop, we’re able to feel that weight of the world that’s suffocated her for so long.
Just as impressively, Peoples navigates what could have been a cliche love triangle with Kai’s screw-up father (Kendrick Sampson, How to Get Away With Murder) and Bacon (Akron Watson, Empire) in a way that gives Turquoise more agency than waiting to be wooed.
Turquoise’s life might not be great as she tries to juggle paying for Kai’s pageant expenses and keeping the electricity on, but she’s not in need of being rescued either. All her life she’s been living for others and Miss Juneteenth asks what happens when she simply wants something for herself?
The only subplot that just never works deals with Turqouise’s super-spiritual churchgoing mother Charlotte (Lori Hayes). Peoples tries to tackle too many subjects here that constantly clash with each other rendering it ineffective and pointless.
There’s a lot of complicated moving parts that easily could have gone wrong in less skilled hands. With charming performances from Beharie and Chikaeze and People’s wonderfully restrained take on a mother’s love for her daughter makes this an ideal film to watch this month or anytime this year.
Rating: 9 out of 10
Photo Credit: Vertical Entertainment