In the wake of the last few years, film viewers and people working in the film industry have recognized the need for more diverse voices and faces both in front of and behind the screen. Recent films such as Black Panther, Roma, and Parasite are just a few examples of people’s desire to see different stories and voices represented on the big screen. In the wake of Black Lives Matter, now more than ever there is a desire for underrepresented communities to share their stories, and I think that Miss Juneteenth is one such story for the times.
Miss Juneteenth (2020) represents Channing Godfrey Peoples’ feature film writer/directorial debut. The film follows former Miss Juneteenth beauty queen and single mom Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie), who works multiple shifts at a bar and as a beautician at a mortuary in order to support her daughter, Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) and fund her entrance into the 2019 local Miss Juneteenth pageant. All the while Turquoise struggles to make ends meet and encourages her rebellious daughter to be enthusiastic about the pageantry, she also must reconcile her relationship with her ex-husband (Kendrick Sampson), her mother (Lori Hayes), and even with herself.
From what I read, Channing Godfrey Peoples is in fact a Texas native, or was at least born in Texas. I feel like that love for small town Texas really comes through. There’s a lot of life given to this town and its inhabitants, particularly with any scenes at the bar. There’s also a deep sense of community that runs through the town. You get the sense that everyone knows Turquoise and that she’s quite loved by many (mostly through her turn as Miss Juneteenth – which also contributes to this character’s ideologized idea of what it means to be a pageant queen). As mentioned in the intro, this film also gives a lot of care and attention to what Turquoise and others struggle with as African Americans in a small town in Texas. This adds to the shared community of this town, as you can see how the majority of black people share similar struggles, or at least can empathize with each other’s situations. It helps make this story feel all the more relevant.
Nevertheless, the film does’t stray away from the story’s main focus: the mother-daughter bond between Turquoise and Kai. Nicole Beharie (Shame, 42, “Sleepy Hollow”) as Turquoise Jones absolutely stole the show. The subtleties in her performance and the way she helps enrich her various relationships with different actors and their characters really help make this character feel like a real person who’s struggling to make due with what she has and give her daughter a better life than she has. That’s nothing to say for Channing Godfrey Peoples’ incredible writing for this character. Both the performance and writing really help to create a fully realized internal conflict. Most people might not be able to relate to being a beauty queen, but you can so ever feel and see how much being Miss Juneteenth meant to Turquoise and how desperately she wants that for her daughter.
Speaking of her daughter, played by Alexis Chikaeze in her feature film acting debut, I felt that her relationship with Turquoise was the more heartfelt part of the film. Chikaeze I thought certainly proved herself a capable talent, and though she didn’t have a ton of chances to really show off her acting chops, I certainly hope to see her in more leading roles in the future. I also felt that the writing and the actor’s dynamic created an extremely well developed relationship between the mother and daughter. You genuinely felt that they had a loving relationship, and though Kai wants different things than her mother wants for her, you can tell she appreciates how hard her mother works, and still does the Miss Juneteenth despite her clear lack of enthusiasm for it. You can see how much they love eachother, and you never feel that Turquoise is too overbearing to Kai, or even if you do, Turquoise is such a well developed character that you always can at least empathize with her.
Some other standout supporting performances include Kendrick Sampson (“How to Get Away with Murder,” “The Vampire Diaries), Liz Mikel (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, “Friday Night Lights”), and Marcus M. Mauldin (Mr. Right, “The Good Guys”). However, outside of performances, where this film really shines is in it’s writing and execution. There were also some really great moments of cinematography from Daniel Patterson, especially when it comes to wide shots and in moments where the camera simply lingers on a character in certain moments. I especially love the use of color, particularly in the bar scenes.
In terms of criticisms, I think that we could’ve gotten more moments with Kai and gotten to learn a little bit more about her. There’s this particular moment where Kai exclaims that Turquoise “always embarrasses her.” Outside of that one instance, though, that outburst felt very out of nowhere. I think we’ve gotten a bit more moments to see how her mother’s insistence on Kai’s entry and training for the pageant affects Kai’s social and school life and gotten to see more of her hopes, desires, and feelings towards her mother and father as we do with Turquoise. There’s also this subplot involving Akron Watson’s character being romantically interested in Turqouise that doesn’t really go anywhere and really doesn’t impact her relationship with her ex-husband too much. Speaking of which, I also felt the resolution to their relationship was a bit unclear which doubly made it unclear how her relationship played into her character growth.
Verdict: 4 out of 5
Great performances, great writing, fantastic direction and cinematography, and a really sense of community and connection to more timely themes and discussions, make Miss Juneteenth a really memorable, thought provoking, and even at times feel-good drama. Channing Godfrey Peoples proves that she is a more than capable writer and director, and I hope to see more projects from her in the future. The relationship and development between Turqouise and Kai is super rich and well developed, making for an all around emotional, beautiful, and at times humorous and joyful experience that I certainly recommend.