Review: 'Miss Juneteenth' delivers message of hope and compassion
Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment
There’s a real warmth to Channing Godfrey People’s drama “Miss Juneteenth” - which has a delicate approach to its subject matter and manages to hold your attention even if you see obvious plot points coming from miles away.
Standing at the center of the film is Nichole Beharie, playing a former winner of the Miss Juneteenth pageant, which awards a young black woman a full scholarship to a predominantly black college of their choosing. As Turquoise Jones, Beharie has a real presence to the screen, offering an earnest, hardworking single mom trying to provide for her daughter, Kai (Alexis Chikaeze). The holiday for which the pageant is named - commemorating the 1865 abolition of slavery two years after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation - also seeks to empower and acknowledge generations of African-American women who have worked harder than most to achieve their dreams.
Turquoise has saved up enough money in tips to help push Kai through the Miss Juneteeth pageant, claiming it’s her only chance to attend college, though you can sense the 2004 pageant winner is yearning to relive her glory days through her daughter. This despite Kai’s obvious disinterest with the pageant who would much rather pursue the school dance team instead, planting the seed for the classic mother-daughter banter, with Turquoise pushing the pageant dynamics and rewards - like manners, ethics, studies - while Kai strives for independence and the two clash often.
It’s a constant reminder throughout “Miss Juneteenth” that winners of the pageant are destined for great things. An obvious contrast for Turquoise whose poor decisions landed her in desperate times (at one point she was a stripper) and her victory, all these years later, comes with an asterisk. And if her daughter were to win the pageant, it might, somehow, justify the path she eventually went down.
Helping pay the bills and keep the lights on is Kai’s auto mechanic father Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson) who's recently stepped back into the picture offering love and guidance. He’s not the stereotypical father-figure that abandoned his kid and instead is crazy about his daughter, a refreshing element that People and Sampson handle exceptionally.
The screenplay - written by People’s - offers an honest look into small-town life, and the obstacles Turquoise faces whenever they arise. Like paying for an expensive sequin dress for the pageant and deciding if that’s worth more than an electric bill, or having car issues and driving a hearse from her part-time funeral palor gig. Godfrey never undermines the work of what single moms do, and we can see that Turquoise is hustling anyway she can to help provide for Kai and it’s a beautiful thing to witness.
On the other hand, some of those elements hold “Miss Juneteenth” back when it should be moving forward. Certain scenes linger on a minute or two longer than they should, or just feel out-of-place (there’s a spat with Turquoise’s evangelical mother after a night of drinking that feels forced). And though the eventual pageant offers a fitting location for the finale, few watching will be surprised at where things land.
But the depiction and presentation of the struggles and challenges black women endure on-screen is an extremely rare feature, and it earns “Miss Juneteenth” plenty of street cred and merit. Though, make no mistake, the film is at peak levels when we see the relationship between Turquoise and Kai unfold on screen and the two performances from Beharie and Chikaeze - in her first role! - should get the underlying message of compassion and understanding through to anyone that has a soul.
MISS JUNETEENTH will be available from various on-digital platforms starting Friday June 19th.