MISS JUNETEENTH. Starring: Nicole Beharie, Kendrick Sampson, Alexis Chikaeze, and Akron Watson. Directed by Channing Godfrey Peoples. Rated M (Coarse language).100 min.
This American drama tells the story of a single mother who lives in a suburb of Fort Worth, Texas, USA. She was the former winner of the Miss Juneteenth beauty pageant in 2004, and she enters her daughter years later in the local, Miss Juneteenth beauty pageant, which gives the film its title.
It is the Texan writer-director’s first feature film, and the movie’s title represents the date of 19 June 1855, which commemorates the day Texan slaves found they were free. The date signifies the liberation of black people in Texas, two and a half years after slavery was outlawed in the United States following President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. ‘Miss Juneteenth’ is a pageant the town runs annually for young black women, who want a college scholarship.
Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie), was the Beauty Queen at the same pageant in the past, and wants her teenage daughter, Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) to follow in her footsteps, but Kai is not all that keen to do that. She prefers to dance instead. Turquoise’s life is hard: she lives on the edge of poverty; she is separated from Kai’s unreliable father, Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson), whom she still loves; she currently works as a beautician at a mortuary whose owner, Bacon (Akron Watson), is romantically attracted to her; and she toils hard for extra money at a local bar.
Turquoise wants her daughter to have a much easier life than she had, or is having. Her win did not head her towards a glamorous, successful future, and she wants differently for Kai. Winning the pageant will mean that her daughter will have her tuition fees covered at a black college of her choosing. As Miss Juneteenth 2004, she had that chance, but fell pregnant with Kai.
Kai struggles with what she has to do as a pageant entrant and performs unsuccessfully. In her final routine, she puts to dance the poem (‘Phenomenal Woman’), which Turquoise performed when she won, years before. Although Kai isn’t given a place by the judges, her mother is proud of what she has done, and how she performed, and resolves to do all she can to help her find a newer life, and make a success of it.
This film, poignantly and melodramatically, explores the ups and downs of the relationship between Turquoise and Kai, and communicates the resilience of two women, who have an affection for each other, and who are trying to survive in a racist world. Nicole Beharie, as Turquoise, gives a luminous picture of a working-class woman trying to secure her daughter’s future. Alexis Chikaeze, as Kai, sensitively communicates the nuances of a young woman coming to grips with the realities that have affected her mother, and which she has come to understand.
Amid the social pleasantries of competitive pageantry, the film raises race themes of a substantial nature. We are exposed to the class divisions within a black community, the tenuous fragility of the American Dream for black people, and the frustration of black people struggling to define and articulate their true identity. The film works authentically to deliver experiences that are anchored realistically to observation. Aside from efforts to deal with racial themes, the movie is a film that projects the value of establishing a sound, emotional connection between mother and daughter, that is different from winning a beauty crown.
As a warm-hearted movie, the film under-states the struggle of black peoples. Its focus is less on black assertiveness, than on the support that black people give each other to help them survive. It is a film that projects African-American pride at a time when positive antidotes are urgently needed to the media’s hunger to show violence and aggression.
There is a truth to this movie that finds its mark. With an all-black cast, it firmly proclaims that “Black Lives Matter”, and it explains why that is the case, in a positive, affirming, and gently insightful way.
Peter W. Sheehan is an Associate of Jesuit Media
Released in cinemas 8 October 2020