Channing Godfrey Peoples makes her debut with an emotional, inspiring tale of the complicated roads Black women must walk in America.
For those who don’t know (since, well, it’s not widely taught in American schools), Juneteenth is an important celebration in the history of African-American civil rights. It marks the day in 1865 when enslaved Texans learned from Union general Gordon Granger that they were, in fact, free – a full two years after the Emancipation Declaration. This celebration has changed and spread over time, becoming an important day for Black people in America, with recent moves to inaugurate it as a national holiday. Miss Juneteenth doesn’t necessarily dig into the history of its titular holiday, per se, but its tale of Black womanhood paints a familiar mother-and-daughter story with sorely-underrepresented shades.
Writer/director Channing Godfrey Peoples’ debut follows single mother Turquoise (Nicole Beharie) as she tries to push her 14-year-old daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) to repeat her victory and win the Miss Juneteenth pageant that would guarantee her a scholarship for an HBCU. We watch their journey as the event moves closer and the relationship between mother and daughter is strained as they clash with the culture of pageantry.
Turquoise and Kai’s relationship is the beating heart of Miss Juneteenth. Turquoise is a single mother who’s just about keeping the bills paid with her job bartending and doing whatever work she can find on the side. This is a character archetype that we’ve seen many times before, but never quite how Beharie does it. You can see the fatigue on her face as she pushes and struggles to make a better life for her daughter. There’s also a palpable feeling of regret about not being able to make a better life for herself earlier on that you can see in every interaction with her daughter, never verbalised by either. What makes this performance really work is the small moments of joy, the times where she finally loosens and Daniel Patterson’s camera lingers on the little smile on her face and it fills you with joy. It’s a performance filled with deep care and humanity.
Kai is your typical teen who wants to grow up too fast. She wants to wear short shorts to the frustration of her mum. She has trouble with a boy and hangs with the wrong crowd. She’s always on her phone. In a lot of ways, she’s the archetypal teenager. This easily could’ve become dull; after all, we’ve seen this type of character a million times before. But Chikaeze gives Kai an endearing level of reality and humanity. She’s more than the construction of a screenwriter; you feel like she could be your little sister or your cousin. This could be applied to a lot of Miss Juneteenth — you get the familiar repackaged with such tenderness you’ll forget that you’ve seen it before.
When the two of them are together, they have great chemistry. When Beharie chastises Chikaeze, you see the love. When they row, it’s out of love. When they support each other, it’s love. This isn’t formed in grand gestures but in small intimacies. The best moments between them aren’t grand duologues, but instead fixed shots of the two of them holding each other tight. It feels like it’s the two of them against the world and they’ll still come out on top.
Outside of the pair, there’s a real sense of place. Miss Juneteeth is unapologetically Black and Southern, whether it’s the music playing at the bar or Turquoise being taken to a date on a horse. There’s also an interesting cast of supporting characters: Lori Hayes is fantastic as Charlotte, Turquoise’s stern and deeply religious mother. She plays both the public and private versions of her character so well, painting a complex picture of a deeply flawed person.
We also have the two main love interests: There’s Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson), her estranged bad-boy husband, and Bacon (Akron Watson), the owner of a local funeral home who’s had eyes for Turquoise since they were both in school. Sampson gives that perfect lothario energy; you’re immediately drawn into his charm, especially with how the camera ogles him. By contrast, Watson is sweet, but also traditional in a way that doesn’t feel malicious, but still doesn’t quite fit her. This dynamic isn’t exactly new, and neither is the outcome. But like most of the film’s tropes, they’re executed so well that you’re swept along with them anyway.
You get the familiar repackaged with such tenderness you’ll forget that you’ve seen it before.
Miss Juneteenth’s focus on the eponymous celebration isn’t just an aesthetic choice or a loose narrative framing; the complicated politics of Black freedom in America run throughout. Whilst Turquoise is legally free, she’s still beholden to the forces of capitalism, rarely getting moments of real agency or even peace. Wayman (Marcus M. Maudlin), the owner of the bar Turquoise works at, is legally free but solemnly acknowledges that there “ain’t no American dream for Black folks.” Instead of dreaming, he’s constantly having to fend off offers from white gentrifiers for his business as he struggles to keep it afloat.
Kai is also legally free, but the Miss Juneteenth pageant presents one of her few chances of being able to go to a good college and make a reasonable living. In training for the pageant, there’s also a running thread around the idea that respectability politics are a route to freedom. This becomes most clear in a scene where the candidates are being taught which knives, forks, and spoons to use for which course of a meal, in a dining room which looks like it came straight out of Gone With The Wind.
In all of these cases, the Black characters are beholden to systems of whiteness and capitalism – even if they are supposedly free. It’s almost as if everyone is still trapped in that two year period between the Emancipation Proclamation and the original Juneteenth.
Miss Juneteenth comes to VOD and digital on Juneteenth.