Miss Juneteenth – movie review

Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie) works hard – in a bar and at a mortuary – to keep her head above water and make something of herself. But, of course, the bills keep coming in. In 2004 it looked like the world was at her feet. That was when she won the title of Miss Juneteenth* – a pageant based around deportment.

Along with the glory of the victor’s tiara, Turquoise received a scholarship to the Black college of her choice. But she squandered that opportunity. Now, 15 years later, she has the chance to make amends through her daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze). Kai however would rather give the Miss Juneteenth pageant a miss and try out for the school dance team. Mind you, Turquoise is insistent. Kai’s entry into the pageant and the money to pay for the necessary gown are far from Turquoise’s only concerns.

She’s also dealing with Kai’s estranged father, Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson), a gambler who can’t be trusted. And then there’s her bible-bashing, alcoholic mother Charlotte (Lori Hayes) who didn’t make things easy for Turquoise as she was growing up. Push as Turquoise does, her life is far from a fairy tale. She has to come to terms with the fact that Kai’s life and choices are Kai’s, not hers.

Miss Juneteenth is a film of gritty realism. Both the characters and the setting felt authentic.

Leading from the front is Beharie. The film is undoubtedly made through her powerful performance – a combination of strength, determination and vulnerability. Sampson captures the two sides to Ronnie’s character that show him as a man who cannot be relied upon. Vulnerability and tenacity are also features of Chikaeze’s display as Kai.

Miss Juneteenth takes a looking glass to history and the ongoing struggle to overcome obstacles as a Black woman in America. It’s insightful and richly nuanced, marking an auspicious debut feature from writer and director Channing Godfrey Peoples.

*Juneteenth celebrates the final emancipation from slavery of African-Americans on 19th June 1865
Miss Juneteenth will screen in select cinemas from 8th October.

Alex First


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