42‘s Nicole Beharie and newcomer Alexis Chikaeze deliver incandescent turns as mother and daughter in writer/director Channing Godfrey Peoples’ arresting feature debut. Using a small Texas town’s Miss Juneteenth pageant as the lens from which to view a complicated parent-and-child relationship and a mom’s attempt to secure her progeny’s future, Peoples limns an indelible portrait of family and community life.
Once upon a time Turquoise Jones (Beharie) was Miss Juneteenth. The scholarship pageant was supposed to be her ticket to a bright future. Other Miss Juneteenths went on to great personal and professional success. But that was not Turquoise’s fate. Oh, she still has the drive of a Miss Juneteenth. That is evident in everything she does as she manages a bar and BBQ joint, works on call as an aesthetician for a funeral home, does what can for her alcoholic mother (Lori Hayes), and raises daughter Kai (Chikaeze) with only unreliable support from Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson), her on-again/off-again partner and Kai’s dad.
Now, Turquoise’s ambition is burning again at the idea that Kai could be the next pageant winner. Her intention is not to relive her own youth through her daughter, only that Kai should have the future Turquoise was denied. Fourteen-year-old Kai is not so enthusiastic. She resents that her mother does not support her passion for dance and actively shoos away the boy she likes. Pageant-mandated etiquette lessons Kai finds humiliating when a vicious former competitor of her mom’s—now a pageant bigwig—delights in calling her out when the teenager makes mistakes. Turquoise means well, but she is also overly controlling, right down to insisting that Kai recite Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” during the pageant’s talent competition, the same poem Turquoise performed in her day.
The mother-daughter relationship is beautifully expressed in all its messiness. Kai is at an age where she wants to start claiming her own place in the world, while Turquoise is afraid of where that measure of independence might lead. There is a generation gap to negotiate and a refusal on both sides to acknowledge the other’s position. Yet there is no doubting the bond between parent and child. Perhaps learning from her difficult relationship with her own mother, Turquoise has built a connection with her daughter that is built to withstand arguments and tension.
Among Miss Juneteenth‘s strengths is its depiction of the community around Turquoise and Kai. The film offers a nearly tactile portrayal of life in a small town where the Juneteenth parade is a celebration not just of history but of the town, pride expressed in marching bands, floats, and local horsemen showing off their steeds. It is the type of place where people help one another out in times of trouble. And while the ladies at the Miss Juneteenth pageant may look down at Turquoise for not fulfilling the promise of her reign, she is, in fact, one of the town leading citizens by dint of her always doing for others despite her own troubles.
With this first feature, Peoples, an award-winning maker of short films, establishes her mastery of place and mood. Gorgeously shot, beautifully acted, Miss Juneteenth won the Louis Black/Lone Star Award for Best Texan Film at SXSW, that spring pageant for independent movies. It deserved that tiara. Like Turquoise Jones, Miss Juneteenth is all heart and that heart is most definitely in the right place. –Pam Grady
Miss Juneteenth is available at the Roxie Virtual Cinema and other on-demand platforms.