Nicole Beharie and Alexis Chikaeze in a scene from “Miss Juneteenth”
AT THE MOVIES
A Perfectly Timed Premiere
By Noah Gittell
“Miss Juneteenth”, a profoundly affecting family drama, got an unexpected boost the week of its release when President Trump scheduled his first public rally in months on June 19, the day that commemorates the emancipation of America’s slaves in 1863. The rally was in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the site of one of America’s most heinous racial crimes. The resulting controversy raised massive awareness of the very existence of Juneteenth, a holiday that many white people, including this writer, had barely heard of.
If it gets more eyes on “Miss Juneteenth”, that’s even better. It features a star-making lead performance by Nicole Beharie, playing Turquoise, a single mother in Fort Worth working as a bartender to provide a better life for her teen-age daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze). When Turquoise was a girl, she was crowned the winner of a local beauty pageant. It earned her a full scholarship to an historically black college, but her unplanned pregnancy — the one that produced Kai — got in the way. Now Kai is up for the same prize, although she’s less enthused about it all than her mother, who is driven to help her avoid the mistakes she made.
It’s a film that interrogates a generational divide that feels both specific to black experiences but also effortlessly universal. As Turquoise, Beharie embraces the contradictions of her character, showing pride and disappointment, fierce discipline and unconditional love all at once. She criticizes Kai’s country way of speaking, but when she’s alone, she speaks just the same. She’s a warrior-mom facing down deadbeat dads, false religion, bad tippers, and more, and Beharie honors the plight of her character by neither downplaying nor overemphasizing the toil of her struggle.
Old enough to be a mother to a teenager, Turquoise is also young enough to take a chance on love, and “Miss Juneteenth” sets her amidst a rom-com love triangle, but, because of the emotional and naturalistic tone already established, the stakes run deeper. Turquoise stays in touch with Kai’s father (Kendrick Sampson), who provides her with sporadic support and occasional moments of affection. He’s not a winning ticket, but he’s around. Meanwhile, her boss (Akron Watson) at the funeral home — where Turquoise works part-time applying make-up to cadavers — openly pines for her, but his sweetness is a turn-off. Yes, she’s a mother to a teen-age girl, but she’s still young.
Some of these threads resolve a little too predictably, but writer/director Channing Godfrey Peoples, in her feature debut, coaxes such natural performances out of her actors and sets such a winning tone that “Miss Juneteenth” is easy to love. The world she creates feels so specific. The way one character casually pours salt in his beer. The acutely judgmental tone of Turquoise’s Bible-thumping mother. Not to mention the pageant itself, in which 12 young black women are trained in manners and expected to “represent the community well” in order to win the prize.
None of these details was familiar to me, but they emerge seemingly without effort from Peoples’ specific vision. It’s rare that a film immerses you in a specific time and place, without drawing attention to its world-building, but that’s the kind of filmmaking talent on display here, and it’s matched by her gift for narrative.
By the time we get to the pageant itself, framed as the film’s third-act climax, we’re less invested in whether Kai wins, but how it impacts the fraying mother-daughter relationship. The finale gives you that beautiful rush that all great films do, when the narrative picks up momentum and glides, seemingly of its own volition, to its inevitable end. But unlike weepy Oscar fare or a bellowing polemic, “Miss Juneteenth” gets there only through sheer love of its characters and respect for their experiences. I can’t imagine a better way to commemorate an American holiday.
“Miss Juneteenth” is now available to stream on VOD.