Miss Juneteenth (2020)
"It’s a uniquely Black story and one of dreams: American, our own, those we have for our children, those we have of the past."
There’s a smile that lights up Kai’s (Alexis Chikaeze) face at points throughout Miss Juneteenth - when she’s watching people dance, when she suggests to her mum Turquoise (Nicole Beharie) that they should practice for the titular pageant, when she stands centre stage in her sunshine yellow gown. It’s a smile that dazzles with natural authenticity while surrounded by beauty queen hopefuls pulling their best pageant grins.
The idea of realness and being true to oneself looms large in Miss Juneteenth, the radiant new feature from Channing Godfrey Peoples. It’s a uniquely Black story and one of dreams: American, our own, those we have for our children, those we have of the past.
Turquoise’s dream is now Kai, her own pageant days behind her as she works relentlessly to push her daughter into a life she hopes will be better than how she sees her own. But there’s conflict within her about whether becoming a beauty queen really gives you a magical life.
"Beharie and Chikaeze have a stunning onscreen chemistry."
Along with her actors, Peoples has created a beautiful mother-daughter relationship at the centre of her film. Beharie and Chikaeze have a stunning onscreen chemistry and although Turquoise is a single mother and Kai is turning 15, we’re spared the usual bratty teen antics. Kai is loving and respectful of her mum’s wishes while still fighting to walk her own path. Both women are superb in their roles, Beharie shining with grace and strength and Chikaeze balancing the uncertainty and youthful embarrassment of her situation with kindness and support - especially impressive as this is her screen acting debut.
With warmth and realism, Peoples takes her time building the story and the world, it’s a welcome pace with which to follow these characters - a Southern pace. The women live their lives within a community based on hard work, respect for Black history, cowboys, dancing, BBQ, dominoes and church - some having more of a positive influence than others. The story is driven by generational struggles and whether what’s handed down is bright futures, pageant crowns, or childhood traumas.
The film is about looking back, although it makes clear that you can’t change the past - the focus should be on what’s possible in the future. Will it be cleaning toilets and paying bail for unreliable men, or a scholarship to a historical Black college? Turquoise knows which she’d prefer for her daughter and does everything she can to make it happen.
"It’s deeply satisfying and by the end it made me cry, but more importantly it made me smile."
We also see the sacrifices made by Kai to gain an education. The Miss Juneteenth scholarship pageant is to prepare the girls for the future - but what if it isn't the future they want? The film’s conflict comes from Kai’s own dreams and Turquoise’s ambitions. After working so hard to push Kai through the pageant, and cover all the costs, she’s forced to admit, “I just want something for myself.” And the audience is left in no doubt that she’s earned it.
I loved Miss Juneteenth. It celebrates Black women as queens while highlighting their everyday battles. It has superb performances and authenticity for miles, it’s beautifully shot and makes wonderful use of the South’s music, it has heart and honesty and packs a punch. Ultimately, it’s deeply satisfying and by the end it made me cry, but more importantly it made me smile.