Miss Juneteenth is a warm, sweet ode to mothers and daughters. While it does all of that it also looks at how love and ambition are passed down through the generations. By the end I found myself crying, not from sadness, but from characters discovering things about themselves and the people they love.
Channing Godfrey Peoples tells a story of race and class through a mother and her daughter struggling to find a balance of love and happiness in Fort Worth, Texas. Turquoise (Nicole Beharie) is a former Miss Juneteenth herself, a pageant designed to uplift and support the Black girls of the community. Though as she enters her own daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) into the pageant, we begin to see that the pageant seems unduly focused on status and class.
For starters, Kai needs a dress and it isn’t cheap. Turquoise has been saving her tips and finally has the money for a deposit on Kai’s dress. Of course, something will come up. Anyone who has ever been working poor, or just plain poor, can tell you whenever you’ve saved up enough money, another bill comes due.
Other winners of the Miss Juneteenth pageant have gone on to be senators, doctors, and lawyers. Turquoise, though she won the crown which comes with a scholarship, is a waitress/bartender/assistant at the local morgue. We learn later that she was even a stripper at one point. A fact that most find scandalous but Turquoise seems unapologetic when confronted by her daughter about it.
The story itself, while well-trodden, is made interesting by the craft, talent, and highlighting of the Miss Juneteenth pageant itself. Juneteenth is the day that slaves in Texas discovered that they were free, some two and half years after the Emancipation Proclamation. The theme of what it means to be free and what it means to be successful runs underneath every frame of Peoples’ film.
Wayman (Marcus M. Maudlin), the owner of the Barbeque restaurant that Turquoise works at, remarks about what a shame it is that Bacon (Akron Watson) the owner of the mortuary is taking a loan from the bank and relocating. Bacon isn’t leaving town but for Wayman and many other Black Americans, the bank means white. He owns his restaurant, outright, and he doesn’t have to worry about the bank changing their mind. It’s his and no one else’s.
Bacon can’t help but fall for Turquoise. But her ex-husband, though they are not divorced, Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson) just got promoted to full time at the auto shop. Peoples never frame it as Turquoise needing to be saved or that she even has to choose only one. It merely shows us two men who are in love with her and waiting for her to choose.
Miss Juneteenth has a deceptively small scope. On the surface, it appears we are just looking at Turquoise and Kai and their struggles to make it through the day. But take a step back and we see Ronnie, Bacon, Charlotte (Lori Hayes) Turquoise’s mother, and others. They are the fabric of the community. While Peoples keeps the focus on mother and daughter, she allows us to get the lay of the land in subtle ways through them.
We learn that Turquoise was a stripper from one of the customers at Wayman’s. It’s a small town and while everyone may not know your name, everyone does know your business. Peoples simply and sublimely explores the lives of Turquoise and Kai while giving us glimpses of others.
In fact, it is through these other lives in which we begin to gain clarity on the lives of Turquoise and Kai. Charlotte is a fervent churchgoer and all but shuns Turquoise when she shows up at church asking her to look after Kai. Yet, later we see her at Wayman’s so drunk Turquoise has to help her home.
Peoples manages to convey a sense of geographic specificity without using any establishing shots of popular landmarks. So many films will have montages, or a lingering shot of a well-known statue or building, in an attempt to ground the film in the location. But Peoples does that without any of those tricks.
The relationship between Turquoise and Charlotte is fraught and uneasy. A stark contrast to Turquoise and Kai’s own relationship. While Kai bristles at her mother’s tendency to never let her stay home alone, and her obsession with Kai winning Miss Juneteenth, she understands her mother is trying to do the best she can.
I learned after watching the film that this was Chikaeze’s first role. Her Kai is wonderfully natural and unforced as she wrestles to establish herself outside her mother’s shadow. She wants to be her own woman but not at the cost of losing her mother.
Nicole Beharie is radiant as Turquoise. Peoples will often just allow the camera to linger on her but never in a way that’s objectifying her so much as if the camera is standing in awe, not of her beauty, but of her presence. Beharie can speak a thousand words at full volume merely by the tilt of her head.
Peoples works with Daniel Patterson’s camera and in place of rapid cuts, gazes at her characters. Kai shows up to a dress rehearsal without her dress because of events outside of her control, the camera lingers above the stage waiting, creating tension as the spotlight resolutely shines on an empty space, waiting for Kai to appear in her regular clothes while her contenders stand by in fine dress. Or when Wayman tells Turquoise that he owns his restaurant not the white man in the banks, but himself. Peoples and Patterson use the camera as an objective observer, allowing us a chance to peek into the lives of these characters.
The tension comes from Kai’s reluctance to compete. The life Turquoise wants for Kai is not the life Kai wants. Miss Juneteenth doesn’t have twists and turns, or any great mystery. It’s just about people living their lives, day to day, trying to pay their bills, and find a little piece of happiness and serenity.
Sometimes I really love my job. Rarely do I get to watch three movies back to back as diverse in style and content but as uniformly fascinating and emotionally engaging. Miss Juneteenth both as a debut and as a film is an engrossing, heartwarming delight.