Just when you thought filmmaking needed stronger and more diverse voices, both in Hollywood and indie cinema, along comes the perfect timing of “Miss Juneteenth”, an enormously enjoyable celebration about great parenting and Black womanhood that is so deeply moving and timeless that I hope everyone ventures out to see right now as it just dropped on all the VOD platforms. This film has the potential in becoming a breakthrough indie sensation for Black cinema that should go way beyond the indie milieu, in similar ways to the 2000 Sundance entry “Love and Basketball,” that was also an artistic and commercial success that found a large audience in years to come.
Very affecting and refreshing on the surface, “Miss Juneteenth” is really a genre drama that combines elements of the mother/daughter dysfunctional drama with those of a character study. The feature directorial debut of this authentic and honest film is of Channing Godfrey Peoples.
It’s unusual these days to see an American film about a Black family, but one of the many positive and innovative aspects of “Miss Juneteeth” is that it embraces cultural change and acknowledges black history, affording the main and supporting plays with fully-developed characterizations, with rich characters arcs, ups-and-downs, as they make some kind of amends after experiencing uncertainties and hardships. The movie gives a refreshing perspective on not only the importance of family bonds, but on the importance of celebrating Juneteenth as a holiday which is recognized by 46/50 states as a holiday, yet hasn’t been recognized one as a federal holiday as of yet.
After premiering at this years Sundance and SXSW Film Festival where it was awarded the Louis Black “Lone Star” Award, which was the appropriate prize for the film since the date of Juneteenth is engraved in black Texan culture, a day that’s even recognized as a paid holiday in the state of Texas. The name is reference to the date of June 19th, 1865, which was the day enslaved people in Texas were informed of their freedom that was mandated by the Emancipation Proclamation two years earlier. Juneteenth has since become a holiday worth celebrating with parades, arts, food, culture and history. With the galvanizing and essential call for action of the Black Lives Matter movement, many corporations are now starting to adopt this day as a paid holiday. Hopefully Congress can act soon and adopt it as a federally recognized holiday.
Writer-director Peoples, a Texan native, delivers her insights of Juneteenth to her remarkable feature film, which explores life centering and preparing for the Miss Juneteenth pageant for teenagers. Nicole Beharie (Shame) stars as Turquoise, a former Miss Juneteenth pageant winner who now just waits tables and serves beer at a barbecue bar while being a single mother as she raises her daughter, Kai (Alexis Chikaeze). She hopes Kai will triumph in the pageant in hopes of earning a scholarship to a historical black college, in hopes of improving Kai out of a lower income household and lost opportunities that Turquoise finds herself confined in.
Peoples is very attentive to her characters here, Turquoises’s character journey is established with poignancy and frailty. Peoples draws a vivid and contemporary setting of working-class Fort Worth, Texas, as she establishes a strong passion for African-American heritage and tradition that compliments the setting. Beharie is so naturally beaming here, the performance is filled with so much compassion and empathy where you can’t help but not hope to see her in more leading roles from here on out.
Turquoise endures a lot of setbacks and challenges along the way. Peoples reveals the wounds of Turquoise’s journey from the politics of the pageant stage to the issues at the bar. She is also very disconnected from her religious estranged mother (Lori Haynes), and Kai’s father still holds a lot of possession towards her. The real heartbreak in the film is Turquoise’s missed opportunities and lost chances, her hopes and dreams are now shattered as she is approaching the age of 40.
Kai and Turquoise also have their own disagreements, as Kai carries on with her own individualism as she is more interested in dating boys and dancing and prefers going to a major university that has a major sports program instead of attending Spelman University. Turquoise motivation is attempting to protect and shaping her daughter so she doesn’t make the same mistakes she has made. This leads the mother/daughter relationship towards a journey of disconnect and tension. Meanwhile, Turquoise must attempt to empower her life and issues at hand that deal with finances, class, relationships, discrimination, and other turmoils.
Aesthetically the film impresses, as cinematographer Daniel Patterson utilizes the locales of Texas, we feel the humid days and nights, but there is also a tender conceptual beauty to the film that feels unexpectedly romantic in Turquoises life: the use of purple-and-blue lights during a beautiful slow dance, the use of birthday candles illuminating a darkened kitchen and the beautiful Sofia Coppola inspired moment of the the mother and daughter cuddling together. It’s small moments like that that allow the natural beauty to flow through, and both Beharie and Chikaeze deliver stirring chemistry and exchanges that showcase the complexity of their relationship.