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Indie Focus: Celebrate with ‘Miss Juneteenth’

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen. Welcome to another edition of your regular field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

Justin Chang wrote an essay this week looking at “The Help,” “Gone With the Wind” and what those movies tell us about where Hollywood’s depictions of race are coming from, where they are and potentially where they are going.

“The current fascination with ‘Gone With the Wind’ and ‘The Help’ might say more about how film discourse naturally gravitates toward what we might call contentious crowd-pleasers — those sentimental, broadly appealing entertainments that divide as many audiences as they unite,” Justin wrote. “It also says something about streaming platforms and their opportunistic programming decisions in a time of quarantine, when those decisions are drawing more attention than usual.”

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I found this passage on Hollywood’s history particularly powerful: “Love it or hate it, we fool ourselves if we pretend that ‘Gone With the Wind’ didn’t teach Hollywood some of its most enduring lessons: the art of the beautiful lie, the art of airbrushing away human pain. The more we may try to abandon this movie on the rubble heap of cinematic history, the more power it accrues — and the more its uncontainable grandeur seems to mock the piddling racial progress of liberal Hollywood.”

Stacy Perman and Ryan Faughnder surveyed nearly two dozen Black filmmakers and executives to get a sense of how Hollywood can and should respond to the current momentum for social justice movements. Among those they spoke with were Kasi Lemmons, Ava DuVernay, Will Packer, John Ridley, Nina Shaw, Robin Thede, Tendo Nagenda and Lena Waithe.

As Melina Matsoukas, director of last year’s “Queen & Slim,” said: “Racism in Hollywood is a pandemic born from over a century of erasure, segregation, white nepotism, redlining, the rewriting of history and pushing false narratives, cultural looting and ostracism. The only way forward is to dismantle these practices within these institutions in an effort to bring true diversity to the entertainment and media industry.”

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‘Miss Juneteenth’

“Miss Juneteenth” is the feature debut for writer and director Channing Godfrey Peoples, previously a writer on the television series “Queen Sugar.” In the film, Nicole Beharie stars as Turquoise, a woman who won her Texas town’s Miss Juneteenth pageant when she was a teenager and has since struggled to fulfill her early promise. Now, her own teenage daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) has a chance to compete in the pageant, and Turquoise must confront where their lives are now. Winner of the Lone Star award for Texas filmmaking from the 2020 SXSW Film Festival, the movie is being released by Vertical Entertainment in select theaters and drive-ins, in virtual cinemas and on VOD.

For The Times, Justin Chang reviewed the film, saying, “‘Miss Juneteenth’ spins a familiar, persuasive story of hard luck, disappointment, resilience and survival shot by Daniel Patterson with an eye that finds the luminosity in every workaday location, and populated by memorable supporting characters.”

Sonaiya Kelley spoke to Beharie about the film and her career, including her abrupt departure from the series “Sleepy Hollow.” As Beharie said, “I am reconciling what it means to be an actor and an artist and a woman of color. The consequences of making a mistake or causing a ripple in the water are greater. And ultimately, nobody wants to be [deemed] trouble. So those situations hold you back and you keep quiet, not wanting to upset anyone or ask too many questions. But I feel like I, and the world as a whole, are in a different place now and I’m happy about that.”

Reviewing for the New York Times, Lovia Gyarkye wrote, “The movie tackles multitudinous themes in its roughly 100 minutes, from the significance of Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of slavery in the United States, to the legacy of racism in predatory bank lending practices. But what’s most impressive is the amount of space Peoples’s black female characters inhabit in the narrative. Instead of just depicting the myriad ways black women carry their communities, the movie goes further to explore how these women and black girls support each other in a world that often fails them.”

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Writing for Awards Watch, Valerie Complex said, “‘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.”

For Vulture, Angelica Jade Bastién wrote, “There’s a sense when Turquoise’s mind flutters to the past that something went awry for her, that this is not quite the life she wants to lead. And Peoples doesn’t give her a happily ever after, but something more honest and true, offering the character a new path to walk down with her daughter at her side and the potential for the kind of life she deserves to live. In doing so, ‘Miss Juneteenth’ becomes not only a celebration of a specific swath of Black life but a tremendous portrait of what it means to live, fully and unapologetically. It’s a rich performance that should cement Beharie as an actress not only worth watching but worth getting far more meaty, leading roles than she has already.”

A scene from the movie "Miss Juneteenth."
(Vertical Entertainment)

‘Babyteeth’

Making her feature directing debut with “Babyteeth” is Australia’s Shannon Murphy, who has previously directed for theater and television, including the most recent season of “Killing Eve.” In the film, Eliza Scanlen stars as Milla, a teenage girl with a terminal illness, who begins to fall for Moses (Toby Wallace), who besides being older is also a drug addict and petty criminal. This is obviously distressing to her parents (Essie Davis and Ben Mendelsohn), and the film finds them all dealing with this unconventional scenario. IFC Films is releasing the film on VOD.

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For The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “‘Babyteeth,’ a drama of unruly intelligence and churning emotional force, brings a jolt of unpredictability to a type of movie usually known for its grim, maudlin excess: the coming-of-age, coming-of-death story … My own concern while watching ‘Babyteeth’ was not that it might behave too much like a play but rather that it might fall into an overly familiar variant of suburban movie misery, well known in the U.S. (‘American Beauty,’ anyone?) but capable of flourishing anywhere in the world with drugs, psychobabble, backyard swimming pools, alluring neighbors and other distractions favored by the dysfunctional bourgeoisie. The movie fortunately escapes this trap, largely by allowing its characters to escape whatever convenient labels we might attach to them.”

I spoke to Murphy, who said, “On the page when you try to describe this film, it sounds like a lot of things we’ve seen before, but I think it’s essential when you choose to make a project as a filmmaker that you’re showing a new version of whatever story you’re telling. And so we knew we had to steer far away from melodramatic cliche, over-sentimentalizing a young person’s illness. And it was important to me that we gave Milla an authentic life. So we didn’t want to just focus on the illness, that she’s driven by all the desires that teenagers have and then magnified by necessity to accelerate her life rapidly. So that was my focus.”

For the New York Times, Manohla Dargis called the film “such a fragile, earnest and inoffensive thing that I almost feel bad for not liking it more. It’s a coming-of-age story in a gently if overly studied eccentric key that follows Milla (Eliza Scanlen) as she finds love and grapples with her parents. Her mother and father are played by the nicely matched Essie Davis and Ben Mendelsohn, who show you the wear and tear of a shared life, both the pain and the adoration. The movie could have used more of them.”

Eliza Scanlen as Milla in Shannon Murphy’s "Babyteeth."
(IFC Films.)
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‘Disclosure’

Directed by Sam Feder, the documentary “Disclosure” looks at depictions of transgender people and experiences in film and television. Among the prominent voices participating onscreen are trans creators such as Laverne Cox, Lilly Wachowski, Yance Ford, Mj Rodriguez and many more. Former Times staffer Tre’vell Anderson appears as well. The film is streaming on Netflix.

Reviewing the film for The Times, Gary Goldstein wrote, “The ambitious movie, which premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, makes a fine, all-trans companion piece to ‘The Celluloid Closet,’ the excellent 1995 documentary (based on Vito Russo’s 1981 book) that tracked LGBTQ on-screen portrayals beginning with the silent era … The movie stresses that, although things have improved for the transgender community in recent years, there’s still much work to be done. A first-rate documentary like ‘Disclosure’ should certainly help the cause.”

For IndieWire, Jude Dry wrote, “The film does a good job of situating each example in a wider context, and reminding viewers why depictions in media matter. ‘For decades, Hollywood has taught people how to react to trans people, and that is with fear,’ explains GLAAD’s Nick Adams. In other words: Each time trans-ness is used as a murderer’s motive, a reason to recoil in disgust, or cause to laugh, the audience is given permission to react in the same way. Since 80 percent of Americans do not personally know a trans person, for many people media is their only experience.”

For Miami New Times, Juan Antonio Barquin wrote, “It wants to be an important document about the history of trans cinema while also being a fun and easy-to-digest crowd-pleaser for audiences that never makes them confront anything truly serious. Feder is more preoccupied with close-ups of an interviewee on the verge of tears than with dissecting images of violence against the trans characters who are introduced … What few insights ‘Disclosure’ offers into queer coding and identification through images that weren’t designed specifically for trans people provide a pleasant reminder that there’s a wealth of queer art out there for those who are willing to seek it rather than wait for what mainstream media has to offer.”

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Laverne Cox in the documentary "Disclosure."
(Ava Benjamin Shorr/Netflix)


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