This charming coming-of-age-film deftly tells the love story of a mother and daughter in an authentic setting that will resonate with many viewers. Writer and director, Channing Godfrey Peoples is able to weave relevant history and Black Texan culture into the story in a way that informs the narrative rather than lectures the audience.
Juneteenth is an American holiday that commemorates the day the last enslaved peoples in Texas found out they were free, over two years after the abolition of slavery. The film begins with the song ‘Lift Every Voice And Sing’ otherwise known as the Black National Anthem to many African-Americans. Immediately this perfectly sets the tone of the film and we gain an understanding of who this story will have particular significance to.
Miss Juneteenth is a real-life beauty pageant for young African-American girls and was created as a way to celebrate and educate Black women on their history. In the film, Nicole Beharie delivers a palpable performance as hard-working single mother and former Miss Juneteenth winner, Turquoise Jones. One of the notable themes of the film is legacies, and Turquoise dreams for her daughter, Kai, to follow in her footsteps and take the Miss Juneteenth crown. Unlike familiar stories of pushy pageant mothers, Turquoise foisting her dreams onto her child is not out of narcissism or ego but out of survival.
The winner of the pageant would gain a full scholarship to any HBCU of the winner’s choice, a prize Turquoise forfeited presumably due to her teen pregnancy which resulted in her daughter Kai. Seeing the hardship Turquoise faces daily; working multiple jobs, struggling to pay bills, and covering the financial shortcomings of her dangerously handsome but unreliable baby daddy (Kendrick Sampson), allows us to invest in the high stakes outcome of winning Miss Juneteenth. The film brilliantly depicts the vicious cycle of poverty and Turquoise’s heartfelt grit and determination to break that cycle is the fuel that keeps you watching.
Beharie is able to convey such a wide range of emotions even in wordless exchanges as we watch Turquoise battle between her head and her heart. When Turquoise blows out the candles on Kai’s birthday cake, to me it symbolised how much she wants to vicariously live through Kai and make better choices. Kai competing in Miss Juneteenth is her redemption story, her do-over.
Kendrick Sampson is perfectly cast as the lovable childhood sweetheart whose charm and southern drawl can make you overlook every unfulfilled promise and poor decision he makes. It serves as a cautionary tale that hood boys, as romantic and aesthetically pleasing as they may be, are a one-way ticket to struggle love. Kendrick Sampson in moody red and blue lighting is definitely a sight for sore eyes though.
I liked that Miss Juneteenth touched on the concept of black ownership and the racist predatory bank lending practices in America. Again, this was skilfully done in a way that fit in with the natural dialogue, instead of a break in narrative to explain a concept as can be seen in shows like Black-ish. Through this medium we gained an insight to Black cowboy culture in Texas and even passed through a Juneteenth museum all while never losing focus on Kai and Turquoise.
Further exploration of Turquoise’s mother and their relationship would’ve added more layers to both characters and humanised her mother more. Her character shift requires more backstory for it to make sense and flow with the trajectory of the film. Other than that, this was a well-written and brilliantly cast film that many will see themselves in. If not the story and actors, the camerawork alone will make you feel the Texas heat with its vast landscape shots, cultural landmarks and muted colour palette.
Miss Juneteenth will be available on major streaming platforms from Friday 25th September