Dir: Channing Godfrey Peoples. Starring: Nicole Beharie, Kendrick Sampson, Alexis Chikaeze, Liz Mikel, Marcus Mauldin. 15 cert, 99 mins
Channing Godfrey Peoples’s debut – the mellow, tender-hearted Miss Juneteenth – is a portrait of a life robbed of its dreams. Turquoise Jones's (Nicole Beharie) photograph hangs in the community museum of Fort Worth, Texas. She’s part of a gilded legacy of Miss Juneteenths, crowned annually to celebrate the day news of emancipation reached the state, more than two years after slavery had been abolished. The winner receives a full scholarship to the historically black college of their choice. There are neurosurgeons, civil rights advocates, and congressmen’s wives among the ranks.
Turquoise won her year, but never had to the chance to attend college. Something got in the way – we’re left to assume it was an unplanned pregnancy. Now, she works two jobs, tirelessly and without complaint, in the hope that her sacrifices will ensure her daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) has a better shot at life than she did. But dreams are tricky things for those who aren’t given the privilege of choice. For her boss (Marcus Mauldin), it’s pointless to hold out for more – “we need to hold on to what we’ve got”. He tells her the American dream is a myth for its black citizens.
But Peoples doesn’t treat her film as any kind of declaration. It’d be easy to insert Miss Juneteenth into the narrative of this year’s Black Lives Matter protests, but the film never actively aligns itself with the political moment. This is the world simply as it is, and has always been. Turquoise’s life is shaped by compromise – on a financial, romantic, and emotional level. The electricity bill needs to be paid, but what does some temporary need compare to what she’s invested in her daughter? If she uses the money to pay Kai’s entry fee into the Miss Juneteenth contest, and to buy her some dazzling, diamanté-studded gown, then maybe things can turn out better for both of them.
The film opens with Turquoise caught up in a daydream – she clings to her old pageant gown, trying to recall that delicate emotion that is genuine hope. On the day she won, it felt like anything was possible. Miss Juneteenth is wonderfully in tune with how family, tradition, and legacy shape a person’s world. Fort Worth is Peoples’s hometown. She revels in the familiar details: a horse tethered to a front porch, a cowboy hat proudly displayed on a coffin, a few notes of hymn music in the air, and garlands bursting with colour, wrapped around parade floats. Turquoise clings to these things because they tether her; they offer some sense of security. But such intense devotion to the past has its downsides. Her fixation on Kia winning Miss Juneteenth is suffocating – she polices her daughter’s language, bans her from joining the school’s dance team. These things don’t befit a future pageant queen.
But for all this mother-daughter strife, Miss Juneteenth never loses sight of their dedication to each other. You see it play out in Beharie’s soft, sad eyes – the actor, best known for her TV work in Sleepy Hollow and Black Mirror, delivers the most beautiful of performances here. Slowly, Turquoise finds her inner peace, tucked somewhere in between past and present, ambition and regret. A new energy born within her, she finally embraces the words of the poet Maya Angelou, which she once recited to impress the crowd and earn her crown: “Phenomenal woman, that’s me.”