Wed. Sep 30th, 2020

Sundance Review: ‘Miss Juneteenth’ avoids tropes to find truth in the Black experience

Nicole Beharie establishes herself as one of Hollywood’s most underrated talents with her strong and heartfelt performance as Turquoise Jones in Channing Godfrey Peoples first feature film, Miss Juneteenth. The film centers on the holiday Juneteenth which celebrates the emancipation of slaves in Texas in 1865, and the pageant that commemorates the day. In this small Texas town, high school-aged girls compete for a chance at a crown and a full scholarship to the University of their choice. Pageantry life isn’t for everyone, but the benefits offer tuition and avoiding years of debt. Pageant judges teach finalists you need to be more than just a pretty face to succeed—something the Turquoise learns entirely too late. 

Turquoise (Nicole Beharie) is a young mother living below the poverty line, and working several jobs to make ends meet. Her 14-year-old daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) wants to date boys and become a dancer, but her mother has other plans. She wants Kai to compete in the 2019 Miss Juneteenth pageant. These pageants aren’t cheap. Dresses can run between $400-$1000–money Turquoise doesn’t have. To make winning this pageant a reality, she sacrifices paying household bills to make sure Kai is prepared.

She is also dealing with her deadbeat ex-husband and Kai’s father, Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson), who is in and out of jail, and their lives. He begs her for another chance, but she isn’t sure he is genuine. Turquoise and her mother (Lori Hayes) have a fractured relationship. Her mother is an alcoholic who’s been drinking since Turquoise was a child and uses church as a crutch for her drunken behavior, but badgers Turquoise on her poor choices while choosing not to reflect on her own. Everyone wants something from Turquoise—they treat her like property. It’s not like she’s uneducated, in fact she’s extremely smart. It is unclear why she didn’t finish college, but the audience surmises it’s because she had a child at a young age. All she wants is something to call her own, but doesn’t know what that is yet. What we do know is she is determined to build a different life for her and Kai. 

Viewers may call this film too laid back because it lacks violence, but there is trauma here. As a teen growing up with an alcoholic mother and an absent father, Turquoise made decisions based on the images she grew up with. Peoples’ narrative explains this well enough without overwhelming audiences with images of Black torment. Miss Juneteenth is reminiscent of an August Wilson play where there is a protagonist who is given a struggle and the audience watches them solve it without traumatizing the characters over and over again. Peoples also makes a statement about mother and daughter relationships, and what happens when mothers project their hopes and dreams onto their daughters. Turquoise is unwilling to accept she is living vicariously through Kai and neglecting her wants and needs as well as her own.

Beharie is one of the best actresses walking right now and isn’t getting nearly enough recognition she deserves in Hollywood. She is a phenomenal actress with a robust body of work spanning film (Shame) and television (Sleepy Hollow). She wears her expressions in her eyes, and when she stares, she looks right through you. The chemistry she has with Chikaeze is off the charts. The youngster is talented, having fun, and isn’t intimidated by Beharie. The duo has something unique and rarely witnessed on screen. 

Miss Juneteenth is written with hope in mind, and the audience will root for Turquoise. She isn’t a tropey caricature that Hollywood likes to box Black actresses into. With so many films about Black suffering, it’s easy to think things are going to a stereotypical place, but Peoples avoids that. This story can belong to anyone but is also true to the Black women experience in America. There is a saying that goes, “Black women have to work twice as hard to get not even half of what they are owed.” You can still achieve success wherever you are in life as long as you establish boundaries, and successfully break free from the toxic people and situations in your life. 

The review is from the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently without US distribution.

Valerie is a military veteran, movie nerd and freelance writer. As a lover of Japanese animation, comics, and all things film, she is passionate about inclusion across all entertainment mediums. She has reported from the Sundance Film Festival and SXSW Film Festival and from the Cannes Film Festival for AwardsWatch in 2019. You can find Valerie on Twitter at @ValerieComplex.

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