This review first ran in January as part of That Shelf’s Sundance coverage, and in honour of it being Juneteenth (and the film dropping today), we’re reposting it. And just in case you’re not aware of the history of Juneteenth, we’ve also included a Vox Explained video to get you up to speed.
At the age of fifteen, Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie) won Fort Worth Texas’ coveted Miss Juneteenth pageant crown. And fifteen years later, that Miss Juneteenth tiara and $1.50 could buy Turquoise a can of Coke.
It’s been a hard knock life for the once-promising beauty queen, who we first meet scrubbing toilets at a hole-in-the-wall bar. While other Miss Juneteenth winners went on to achieve great success, Turquoise never made it out of her dusty little Southern town.
Not long after winning the competition, a cute boy knocked Turquoise up, and motherhood dashed the young woman’s dreams out the window. Now thirty years old, the single mom works two part-time jobs to make ends meet, since she can’t depend on her former husband/current booty call (Kendrick Sampson) to help support their daughter.
Their daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze), is almost the same age that her mom was when she got pregnant. And Turquoise is hellbent on not letting Kai make the same mistake. She enrolls Kai in the 2019 Miss Juneteenth pageant even though they can’t afford the competition’s fees. But should Kai win, she will receive a scholarship to an HBCU, and the struggling family can’t afford to pass up the opportunity. There’s one problem: Kai has no interest in following in her mom’s footsteps as a pageant queen.
Heading into Sundance, I had never heard of Miss Juneteenth’s writer and director, Channing Godfrey Peoples. In no way do I mean this as a dig. I had no idea who she is, where she comes from, or why she was telling this story. But after spending 103-minutes watching Peoples’ film, and soaking up detail after vivid detail, I would bet my life that Miss Juneteenth is a window into this filmmaker’s upbringing.
Miss Juneteenth is so thoughtful, earnest, and heart-achingly specific that it can only be the work of a storyteller baring their soul. Miss Juneteenth is that kind of movie.
The first thing I noticed about the film is how much affection Peoples has for every character who enters the frame. I’m not just talking about the main cast, either. The camera captures every character (right down to the most inconsequential extra) with a loving gaze.
Peoples and cinematographer Daniel Patterson create a naturalistic slice of Southern life that feels so lived in you can practically smell the sweat, cheap bourbon, and BBQ smoke wafting off the screen. Unlike many of today’s filmmakers, Peoples excels at giving the movie room to breath. It’s in these moments that the camera pulls back to take in the locals as they shake their booties and party their worries away. These shots don’t serve the plot, but they do reveal how people in the town get by. These little pockets of joy are what sustain the downtrodden as they trudge their way through whatever shitstorm life throws their way.
What I loved most about this story is that it never resorts to Tyler Perry movie-style theatrics to get its point across. While Turquoise’s life is a constant struggle, the film doesn’t descend into poverty porn. So, when Turquoise and Kai’s lights get cut off, it’s not played like the end of the world, just another obstacle to deal with.
I also appreciate that there isn’t a real villain in the movie, not even the deadbeat dad. Life isn’t so cut and dry, so neither is this story. Instead, Peoples populates the film with complicated people who each have their charms and their hang-ups – including Turquoise. And it’s this aspect of family life, that I found so wrenching and relatable.
It’s easy for some people to cast judgment at women like Turquoise, who, through a series of poor decisions, find themselves in a life of constant destitution. Sure, anyone can raise themselves up out of poverty, in theory. Just like anyone can win the Super Max lottery – do you know anyone who has done it? You can’t win the lottery without a ticket, and in life, the ticket out of poverty is a strong support system. Turquoise is a prime example of what happens to promising young women who lack support systems.
When I look at Turquoise, I see so many of the women in my family, who, for various reasons lost ground in the game of life and never fully recovered. Beharie plays the character with the heart of a lion. But even a ferocious spirit grows weary after a lifetime of struggle. And one can’t help but wonder how many more blows this struggling mom may suffer before taking a page from her own mother’s book and drowning her sorrows with alcohol.
Miss Juneteenth is the type of film you travel to festivals like Sundance hoping to see. It’s well-written, impeccably cast, and anchored by an excellent lead performance. Most importantly, Turquoise and Kai’s relatable story is inspiring and bursting with heart. I can’t wait to see what this promising writer-director does next. Whether Peoples delivers a narrative feature, a doc, or even an infomercial, sign me up right now because I’m all in.