Miss Juneteenth, 2020.
Directed by Channing Godfrey Peoples.
Starring Nicole Beharie, Alexis Chikaeze, Kendrick Sampson, Akron Watson, Marcus Mauldin, Liz Mikel and Lori Hayes.
A former beauty pageant winner tries to help her daughter win the same title, 15 years later.
Juneteenth is an annual celebration in the USA to mark the 19th June 1865 – the day a Union Army general declared that slaves in Texas were now free, putting an end to the Lone Star State’s holdout after the 1862 Emancipation Proclamation. It’s a date marked today in a number of ways, with parades, readings, historical reenactments and, as depicted in Channing Godfrey Peoples’s debut film Miss Juneteenth, beauty pageants.
The film follows Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie), who won the Miss Juneteenth pageant in Fort Worth, Texas, 15 years ago, but has struggled to parlay that success into a comfortable life. “I will never get over seeing Miss Juneteenth cleaning toilets,” says her chirpy co-worker (Liz Mikel) in a local bar, and she also has a second job doing make-up at the mortuary run by long-time friend Bacon (Akron Watson). She’s a single mum to teenager Kai (Alexis Chikaeze), though she has an on-off relationship with the girl’s unreliable father, Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson). In the hope of giving Kai the opportunity of a better life, she encourages her to enter the Miss Juneteenth pageant – for which the prize is a college scholarship.
Stories about the shortcomings and myths of the American Dream are ten a penny throughout cinema history, but it’s sadly rare to see those ideas filtered through a Black lens. And it’s even rarer that the lens is that of a Black woman. Turquoise’s restaurant boss makes the point explicitly in one scene. “Ain’t no American Dream for Black folks,” he says. “We’ve got to hold on to what we’ve got.” Whatever people like Turquoise achieve, there’s every chance that the systems working against people of colour, not to mention single mothers, will render those victories short-term.
The weight of that disappointment lingers heavily over Turquoise’s life and manifests in the way she seeks to live vicariously through Kai, who clearly has vastly different interests and priorities to her mother. Both women portray the nuances of this mother-daughter relationship with the complexity it deserves. They may disagree on virtually everything, but their love and respect for each other shines through as two women battling the difficulties their gender and skin colour forces upon them.
Unfortunately, this sophistication is not afford to the various subplots orbiting Kai and Turquoise’s attempts at scoring the Miss Juneteenth tiara. Notably, the strange structures of the pageant circuit come in for very little criticism. Turquoise’s mother, Charlotte (Lori Hayes), is an evangelical Christian disappointed by her own daughter’s unwillingness to engage with faith. Her plotline is under-cooked and feels superfluous, with the movie outing her as a recovering alcoholic without ever reckoning with the way her own upbringing may have shaped Turquoise and the way she parents her own child.
There are several subplots like this within the fabric of Miss Juneteenth – Turquoise’s unusual half-romance with Bacon is another under-explored corner – but none of them are ever given the screen time they need to find a foothold. As a result, Peoples’s movie has a somewhat meandering quality that leaves it lacking some of the emotional resonance it reaches for throughout. The Miss Juneteenth pageant itself – featuring an unconventional reworking of the Maya Angelou poem Phenomenal Woman – finds real impact and potency, but that’s a power that is absent through much of the slightly bloated narrative.
But the slightly wobbly storytelling and rather too loose feel does not rob Miss Juneteenth of its intrigue as a critique of the ways in which Black women are doubly discriminated against, despite the success and potential they may display in their younger years. Peoples shows real intelligence and warmth in her feature directorial debut, even if not everything quite comes together.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.