Nicole Beharie as Turquoise Jones
Kendrick Sampson as Ronnie
Alexis Chikaeze as Kai Jones
Liz Mikel as Betty Ray
Written and Directed by Channing Godfrey Peoples
Miss Juneteenth Review:
The pageant culture in America is a long-standing and diverse area that has been covered in everything from the darkly comedic Little Miss Sunshine to the star-making Miss Congeniality, but rarely has it been covered with such heart and culture as Channing Godfrey Peoples’ Miss Juneteenth.
Turquoise Jones is a single mom who holds down a household, a rebellious teenager, and pretty much everything that goes down at Wayman’s BBQ & Lounge. Turquoise is also a bona fide beauty queen—she was once crowned Miss Juneteenth, a title commemorating the day slaves in Texas were freed–two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Life didn’t turn out as beautifully as the title promised, but Turquoise, determined to right her wrongs, is cultivating her daughter, Kai, to become Miss Juneteenth, even if Kai wants something else.
Countless films over the years have taken to illustrating a character such as Turquoise with a more outlandish and goofy brushstroke, someone tied to the past and seeing themselves as high and mighty in comparison to everyone else, but the way she’s written and brought to life is nothing short of original and breathtaking. She may have some of these qualities, but Peoples has crafted a real character dealing with real struggles in the most authentic of ways, from references to having stripped in the past to feed her and Kai to a complicated marriage to Kai’s father, Ronnie.
The way Peoples develops both Turquoise and the story around her, we’re never meant to feel sorry for her or pity her, but meant to root for her and to see the resilience she exudes at everything life throws in her way. By creating an character audiences can empathize with rather than sympathize, we get the feeling we’re neither being talked down to or that we’re being given a simplified version of this tale, but instead a raw and honest portrayal of real women in America.
In addition to the way Turquoise is crafted as an individual, the relationship between her and Kai does feel authentic and moving, if at times a little unoriginal. It’s obviously hard not to portray every teen as wanting to rebel against their parents, especially in a situation where one has a sole goal in mind for their kid, but Peoples mostly succeeds in overcoming some formula points for this topic. Even as the two argue with each other and Turquoise tries to steer Kai towards her own goal, there’s not a feeling of growing animosity or resentment in the teen dreamer but one that’s hopeful and supportive as we know the young mother will help her daughter achieve her dreams after completing the pageant.
The exploration of the simultaneously dark and celebratory nature of the titular holiday and its roots in the story’s southern area was a very compelling and rich part of the film’s cultural recipe. It doesn’t feel like it’s pandering or trying to exploit its topic, but rather illustrate some of the ways black communities in the south have taken the official Texas holiday and transformed it from a mournful reminder of a dark time in America’s past to a joyful celebration of some of what has followed over the years. From the pageant itself to a local museum offering a look back at the original Juneteenth and locals taking the opportunity to enjoy local food and partying with one another, Peoples uses her past having grown up in Fort Worth to charming and compelling heights, letting the camera linger on powerful mementos from the past and the loving community of the present.
Peoples’ script and direction are supported by a fantastic turn from Nicole Beharie, who has shined plenty in the past with her supporting performances in the Jackie Robinson biopic 42 and co-leading Fox’s Sleepy Hollow but finds herself in award-worthy territory here. There’s no screaming matches between Kai and Turquoise or the latter and Ronnie, even when it feels like there should be, nor does she allow her character to be a blubbering mess or caricature, but instead keeps her grounded, raw and resilient. She shows so much grace and strength in her facial performance of delivering stern warnings to Kai and her boyfriend as well as deep affection for the former, excelling wonderfully without even requiring much dialogue.
Nicole Beharie and Alexis Chikaeze prove compelling and Peoples delivers a rich, moving and thoroughly authentic tale in her feature debut that helps carry Miss Juneteenth past some of its trope familiarities into a mostly original affair.