Review: The winning drama ‘Miss Juneteenth’ is timely, though not in the ways you’d expect
On June 19, 1865, more than two years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, the Union Army Gen. Gordon Granger read federal orders in Galveston, Texas, informing the slaves of that state that they were finally free. Juneteenth, the holiday that emerged from that historic liberation, turns 155 this week during a nationwide reckoning that feels similarly overdue: Amid a massive public outcry against systemic racism and the devaluation of Black lives, it’s a day that demands to be acknowledged and celebrated with renewed intensity.
The makers of the aptly timed “Miss Juneteenth” likely didn’t anticipate those circumstances when this lovely, leisurely independent drama quietly premiered months ago at the Sundance Film Festival. It arrives on streaming platforms this week not with blistering urgency but with welcome warmth, lived-in melancholy and the faintest whispers of satire. The writer-director Channing Godfrey Peoples, making her feature debut, has a deft way with understatement, and here she casts an affectionate, gently ambivalent eye on the traditions and rituals that have long held sway in a small Fort Worth community. (It won the SXSW Film Festival’s Lone Star Award for best Texan film.)
For the record:
2:57 PM, Jun. 18, 2020An earlier version of this review credited the role of Kai’s boyfriend to Marcus W. Mauldin. The actor’s name is Jaime Matthis.
Chief among those traditions is the local Miss Juneteenth competition, where the usual stations of the beauty-pageant cross — bright-colored evening gowns, formal etiquette lessons — share stage time with stirring recitations of Sojourner Truth and Maya Angelou. “Not only will you represent your beautiful selves but our history as well,” the pageant’s beaming director informs her latest group of candidates, among them a none-too-keen 14-year-old Kai Jones (Alexis Chikaeze), whose mother, Turquoise (Nicole Beharie), was named Miss Juneteenth years earlier.
Life since hasn’t been as kind to Turquoise, who’s shown early on scrubbing a toilet at the bar and BBQ joint where she works. Friends and acquaintances often reminisce about her faded moment of glory, sometimes to cheer her up, sometimes to remind her how miserably short she fell of expectations. Peoples’ script keeps the details vague, though we can infer that Turquoise became pregnant and gave birth to Kai not long afterward, deferring her dreams in the process. Hard-working and unassuming, she sees in her daughter the potential fulfillment of those dreams, if only Kai can win the Miss Juneteenth crown and its accompanying prize, a scholarship to a historically Black college.
Like any independent-minded teenager, Kai shoulders her mom’s burden of expectations half-heartedly at best. (She’s more interested in joining her school’s dance crew and spending time with her boyfriend, played by Jaime Matthis.) Turquoise, meanwhile, struggles to cover pageant expenses by taking on extra shifts at the BBQ and at the funeral home where she works part-time as a cosmetician. She leans a little on Kai’s auto-mechanic dad, Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson), who’s still part of their lives and wants to reunite with Turquoise permanently. Their scenes together are sweet and sensual enough to make you almost want the same, though Turquoise is wise enough to remember that things didn’t work out for a reason.
“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 like Turquoise’s estranged mom, Charlotte (Lori Hayes), an evangelical minister whose moral rectitude comes from a startling place of brokenness. More sympathetic in every sense is Turquoise’s boss, Wayman (Marcus M. Mauldin), who administers a tough dose of reality — and underscores the enduring significance of Juneteenth more succinctly than any pageant could — when he notes, “Ain’t no American dream for Black folks.”
Turquoise isn’t given any lines that declarative; she doesn’t need them. Beharie, a wonderful actress (“American Violet,” “Shame”), has the rare ability to let you see what she’s thinking, and her every downturned glance and wistful smile carries the quiet ring of truth. Her dynamic with Chikaeze is particularly delicate in the way it refuses to hammer the emotional notes that usually signify parent-teenager angst. Mother and daughter may disagree on a lot, but warmth and forgiveness come easily to them.
Theirs is a state of everyday grace, something Turquoise’s mother preaches about without entirely understanding. The cool skepticism with which the film regards Charlotte’s church community, with its scenes of charismatic prayer and anointing, is echoed by its poker-faced view of the Miss Juneteenth contest itself, whose rituals register as both beautiful and curiously remote. There’s meaning and purpose in this commemorative spectacle, but as Peoples guides her characters toward a beauty-queen showdown that seems both predictable and not, she suggests that pageantry and performance have their limits. The truest bonds are forged in closer, more modest quarters, and sometimes the truest movies.
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes
Playing: Available June 19 on VOD
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