Movie Review: Miss Juneteenth
Miss Juneteenth is about Turquoise, a single mother and former Miss Juneteenth pageant winner, who is struggling to get her daughter, Kai, interested in the pageant. She also has to make ends meet by working at a bar and part time at a funeral home. All while fighting to get the money owed by her estranged husband and Kai's father, Ronnie. The film stars Nicole Beharie, Kendrick Sampson, Alexis Chikaeze, Lori, Hayes, Marcus M. Mauldin, Liz Mikel, Akron Watson, and Phyllis Cicero. It is written and directed by Channing Godfrey Peoples. The film is available to rent on video on demand platforms.
I like a story with layers, with depth only revealed in pieces and snippets. I like to watch a character react to a situation and with sudden clarity we, the audience, knows why they said or did something earlier. Channing Godfrey Peoples' script has those beautiful layers to it. As the character, past and ideals of Turquoise are revealed to us, we see a complete and beautiful portrait of who she is.
Peoples' directing with the help of editor Courtney Ware, build those layers for us in a striking way. The best example is Turquoise's relationship with her mother. The first time we see Charlotte, singing at the pulpit during Sunday service, she's stoically opposed to Turquoise's lifestyle, to her methods of keeping her head above water financially and we think the rift is one sided. That is until we see Charlotte, very drunk at the bar. So, drunk, Turquoise has to pick her up to get her home. We see that it wasn't only that Charlotte disowns Turquoise, but Turquoise cut herself off from her mother's toxicity. Their final fight outside the church culminating in Charlotte slapping Turquoise in the face. It's a well composed and executed plot thread.
Though, my favorite scene of the film comes after Turquoise arrives home from her date with Bacon, the son of the mortician she works for, and the altercation between Bacon and Ronnie. In the scene Turquoise makes a decision. In a stellar shot composed by Peoples and cinematographer Daniel Patterson, Turquoise sits on her front stoop in her dress, cowboy boots, and crown, smoking a cigarette. The camera slowly pushes in and even from far back we can see what's happening. We can see the wheels turning in Turquoise's head, the math she's adding up. She knows what has to happen. It's a fabulous quiet moment of reflection that plays beautifully.
It's in that moment that the theme of the film emerges. Turquoise finally realizes that she's been waiting. She's been waiting for Ronnie to become someone he's not. She's been waiting for Kai to be old enough for Miss Juneteenth, so there doesn't have to worry about paying for college. She's been waiting for Wayman and Bacon to offer her more and better than what they've been able to give her. She's been waiting for Charlotte to take responsibility. All that waiting keeps her down and keeps her struggling. In that moment on the porch she realizes there's no reason she should wait. There's no reason she has to push Kai toward Miss Juneteenth. She can make it, all of it, really happen for the two of them happen. She's always been capable. She's always been strong and independent and there's no reason to wait.
This theme comes across so strongly because of the incredible performance of Nicole Beharie. Turquoise feels like a living, breathing human being because of the humanity and grace Beharie brings to the role. She commands the screen and wins our attention from the first moment to the last. She's a fabulous talent and an expressive, thoughtful actress. Nicole Beharie is just excellent in this film.
Miss Juneteenth is a film with a great deal of poise and depth like its characters. It has great acting and a familiar, but unique story. I look forward to Channing Godfrey Peoples' next film with great anticipation because she's shown incredible promise with this debut. Seek this one out.