‘Miss Juneteenth’ Review: A Warm and Poignant Portrait of Black Southern Life, Anchored by Nicole Beharie

Some films just perfectly capture their setting. From atmosphere to tone, everything is just right. Miss Juneteenth is so steeped in Black Southern life, you’ll feel the Southern hospitality as soon as you dive into the Nicole Beharie-led film, which has a release coinciding with Juneteenth 2020.

Nicole Beharie and Alexis Chikaeze in 'Miss Juneteenth'
Nicole Beharie and Alexis Chikaeze in ‘Miss Juneteenth’ | Vertical Entertainment

‘Miss Juneteenth’ is more than a Southern-fried pageant tale

Written and directed by Channing Godfrey Peoples in her feature directorial debut, the film stars Beharie, Kendrick Sampson, and Alexis Chikaeze. The film’s name and subject matter come from the holiday Juneteenth, which just happens to be on most folks’ radar this year due to the protests against systemic racism and police brutality that have gone on over the past month amid police killings. The holiday, also known as Freedom Day, commemorates the June 19, 1865 date when it was announced that slavery was abolished in Texas. It was announced to enslaved persons on this date when Union soldiers reached Galveston, Texas, even though the Emancipation Proclamation was two years earlier.

Carrying the same name of this holiday, Miss Juneteenth oozes pure, Black, Southern-fried magic. The film centers on Turquoise “Turq” Jones, who was headed toward big things when she was crowned Miss Juneteenth in her Black community in Fort Worth, Texas, where the filmmaker is from. The pageant is for young teen women who have to excel in several different categories. The winner receives an all-expenses-paid scholarship to a Historically Black college or university (HBCU) of their choice. Now, Turq won this pageant, but that was way back in 2004.

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Years later, she finds herself back home, where she helps manage a BBQ joint, waiting tables there and taking care of the bar at night. She also has a side job as a mortician’s assistant. Her daughter, Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) is now the Turq’s age when she was bestowed the crown. Now, she wants Kai to do what she wasn’t able to do and seize all of the opportunities that she can, and she sees winning this pageant as the start of Kai’s trajectory. Turq pretty much strong arms Kai into the competition, pushing her to get the life that she doesn’t have.

The old queen and the prospective, new queen

Despite this, Kai is disinterested in the pageant, more interested in being on her school’s dance team, and spending time with her would-be boyfriend. However, our story here is less about unpacking Kai’s disinterest and more about unraveling why this means so much to Turq.

For the young mother, her time has passed. She ended up pregnant with Kai and had to turn to more unsavory (as determined by community members) means. She’s not aided by Kai’s father (played by Sampson), who she still has an on-again, off-again relationship with. She also has the pressure of her incredibly religious mother, which has weighed on her heavy for years. And now, she’s seemingly stuck with all of these hustles and nothing to show for it. Not to mention she’s up against other complex family issues, money problems, racism, and much more. It’s hard to make ends meet and she doesn’t know what’s will happen for her, but one thing she does know is that Kai is going to make something out of her life.

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The film brings together a complicated and touching mother-daughter story that at the end and, as cliche as it may be, proves that it’s not about winning or losing, it about the lessons that we learn within the process.

A great vision from writer-director Channing Godfrey Peoples

As a solid first feature for Peoples, she is able to add a lot of depth to her story and characters while remaining a generally quiet yet affecting film of sorts. She makes the absolute most of the vibrant Texas backdrop and the lively community in which this was filmed. From the sweltering heat to the cowboys to the late-night dive bar dancing, she perfectly captures this specific scenery. She’s also able to link the significance of the Juneteenth holiday seamlessly throughout and makes it work. Stalling a bit just over halfway through, the film does move a bit sleepily at times and portions of the script don’t help this, but it would be hard to let any of this distract from its charms.

Nicole Beharie as  and Kendrick Sampson in 'Miss Juneteenth'
Nicole Beharie as and Kendrick Sampson in ‘Miss Juneteenth’ | Vertical Entertainment

A perfect Nicole Beharie performance

Unsurprisingly enough, Beharie, one of the most talented and most underrated actors working right now, has a spectacular showing in this role. Turq is a complicated character with a lot going on and Beharie is able to tap into it all. Peoples and Beharie are able to brilliantly craft this narrative of Turq’s disdain for the pageant and the institution while knowing this is one of Kai’s few avenues that she can take to succeed.

Sampson, who is most known for his roles in Insecure and How to Get Away with Murder, gives his best performance to-date as the mechanic who just can’t do right. He’s not set up to be any sort of antagonist, so you want to root for him as well. Sampson makes it even more complicated by playing the character with such charm. Chikaeze, a promising newcomer, is able to act as a foil of Beharie while tapping into the character’s teen angst and search for identity that we all go through.

All in all, you can’t help but root for this formidable duo and cheer them on with all of the odds stacked against them. With this social and political movement going on in America right now, we’re sure you’ll be thinking about this film for a long time to come.

Miss Juneteenth is available on-demand and digital download on June 19, 2020.