Quick cultural lesson. Juneteenth is the annual holiday in the US marking the end of slavery, and takes place every 19th June, the day when slaves were given their freedom in Texas – two and a half years after the rest of the country. Which makes it even more significant for the Lone Star State. One of the events celebrating the holiday is the Miss Juneteenth pageant, created as a way to educate young black women on their history and, while a number of cities have their own versions of it, the main event takes place in Fort Worth. Lesson over.
Director/writer Channing Godfrey Peoples sets her debut feature in her home city of Fort Worth, and gives us something more than simply an examination of a unique beauty pageant. Miss Juneteenth centres on one previous winner, Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie) and her efforts to persuade her teenage daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) to take part and hopefully win the scholarship that comes with the title. Kai’s not keen – being a cheerleader is more her style – but Turquoise’s own struggles, financial and otherwise, mean she has ambitions for her daughter. And what Kai wants for herself is relegated to second place.
Nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance, Miss Juneteenth pits childhood dreams and ambitions up against those of parents. There’s the inevitable mis-match but instead of giving us a story of conflict, the tone is low-key, almost unassuming, with Turquoise’s history as her driving force. It’s one that shows that winning isn’t everything: she may have won the crown but, unlike previous title holders who went on to be lawyers and surgeons, her main job is in a local bar, topping it up by providing make up services at the local funeral parlour. Her ex-husband is unreliable, especially when it comes to money and, with the bills piling up, she can’t really afford the extra expense of entering Kai into the pageant. But it’s her dream and nothing’s going to stand in her way.
Even a lecture from her employer to remind her that “Ain’t no American Dream for us black folks” doesn’t deter her, although as a message to the audience it’s a touch heavy handed, and out of step with the overall tone of the film, which is gentle and thoughtful, something that’s underlined by the film’s leisurely pace. Beharie is excellent as Turquoise, constantly pulled in all directions – her own dreams, her lack of achievements, bringing up her daughter and the almost constant presence of the pageant in her life which keeps her wedded to the past. She’s well matched by Chikaeze, who resists the temptation to turn her character into a typically truculent teen, creating a likeable girl, in many ways her mother’s daughter.
The past and the future are omni-present in Miss Juneteenth, both the film and the pageant itself, which represents old fashioned, finishing school style values as well as embracing education and opportunities for young black women. On a more personal level, it’s a portrait of two women, with their own dreams and ambitions, but who will always support each other, no matter what. It makes for a compassionate watch, one that resonates with its audience and which tells its story with generosity and heart.
Drama | Cert: 15 | Cinemas and digital | Vertigo Releasing | 25 September 2020 | Dir. Channing Godfrey Peoples | Nicole Beharie, Alexis Chikaeze, Kendrick Sampson, Lori Hayes.