There’s a way in which cinema is a bit of a beauty pageant—in which what stories get immortalized on camera and who is given the opportunity to tell them speaks considerably to what our society deems valuable and worth admiring. This is where the debut feature from writer-director Channing Godfrey Peoples is both something familiar and excitingly different. A mother-daughter tale of love and conflicting ideals, Miss Juneteenth taps into beloved universal archetypes to tell an unapologetically, uncompromisingly Black tale of Black womanhood. It’s a story and a voice we still don’t see represented enough on screen, and a remarkable viewing experience whether you’re someone who sees yourself represented here or feel like you’re getting a view into a world totally unfamiliar to you.
Miss Juneteenth tells the story of Turquoise Jones (an excellent Nicole Beharie), a former winner of the Miss Juneteenth beauty pageant who saw a world of dreams opened up to her and then abruptly, indefinitely deferred as an unplanned pregnancy prevented her from making use of the college scholarship she won, and respectability politics barred her from even presenting her successor with her crown. Now in her 30s with a teenage daughter of her own, Turquoise is determined to see Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) repeat her victory—and from there seize all the opportunities that slipped through her fingers. Although Kai would much rather dedicate her time to her school’s dance team, she acquiesces to her mother’s wishes even though she fails to see the strict, stuffy world of pageantry as the nexus of opportunity her mother imagines. Over the course of the film, mother and daughter are aligned in their goals but differ in their ideas of how best to achieve them, and the tug of war over whether what brings them together will be stronger than what drives them apart plays out in a nuanced and hearteningly genuine way.
Although maintaining the beats of a coming-of-age story, Miss Juneteenth is far more Turquoise’s story than Kai’s, and all the stronger for it. One can easily imagine a version of the tale that puts the daughter front and center, and while it could have been a sufficiently charming Bildungsroman, taking the road less traveled by centering Turquoise makes for a far richer, more nuanced story. Finding the courage to dream as a teenager is very well and good, but Turquoise’s once-burned-twice-shy tale of finding the resilience to not only dream again, but to have ambition for herself beyond dreaming vicariously through Kai, is a far rarer gem and all the more moving for it. “I just want something for myself,” Turquoise states in one of the most poignant moments of the film, which does an excellent job throughout of showing exactly how quietly radical such an assertion is.
Miss Juneteenth is a fantastic character study, and so sharp and well-crafted overall that it’s easy to forget the film is Peoples’ first feature. That said, the one front that occasionally demonstrates some room for growth is dialogue. While there are many fabulously written scenes here, particularly in the latter half, the first act is marked by some overly expository scenes that lay bare or reiterate information already made evident elsewhere in ways that almost feel a little nervous, as if the film is checking in to make sure you received an earlier message. These repetitions are, at worst, a minor inconvenience and hardly detract from the many strengths on display elsewhere.
At once a portrait of a woman, a relationship, and a community, Miss Juneteenth feels at once intimate and expansive. Heartwarming but realistically bittersweet, it’s a subtly layered and nuanced portrait of Black womanhood, about having the audacity to dream and pursue something for one’s self, and a shining debut from an up-and-coming filmmaker who ought to be on your radar.
Miss Juneteenth is available on VOD.
Header Image Source: Vertical Entertainment