“I just want something for myself” – when you hear words that poetically resonate so deeply, it becomes a testament to what writer and director Channing Godfrey Peoples accomplishes in Miss Juneteenth.
Miss Juneteenth is a beautifully poignant and intimate journey of a Black woman’s soul. On the surface, it’s a simple story told well – the story of Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie), a single mother who strives for a better life for her teenage daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze). She believes that will be achieved by winning a scholarship at the Miss Juneteenth beauty pageant – an accolade she formerly held. But what is immediately striking are the multi-layered conversations is elicits, from motherhood, societal expectations, relationships, Black femininity, and Black individualism.
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You have to admire how Peoples’ script systematically dismantles the mythological aura that surrounds Black women. Most Hollywood depictions reduce their inclusion as an oversimplified figure – a mentor, a saviour, a matriarch, a guardian, or if a situation commanded it, the sassy or angry Black woman. Miss Juneteenth plays with those arguments and conventions, but there is a lot more running through its veins in delving beneath that veneer. It’s more than just a Black woman surviving and making ends meet for her daughter’s sake. Miss Juneteenth is an active discussion of the complexities of being a Black woman, and how it navigates that argument is both compelling and refreshingly honest.
Miss Juneteenth frames itself like an anti-Disney tale, where the Juneteenth pageant shapes young girls and women as the future role models of society. Dressing up like an array of Disney Princesses, the strive for Black excellence is reflected in the high achievements set by its winners as they become wives of politicians, Civil Rights attorneys, or neurosurgeons. They attend etiquette classes of lessons on how to ‘be’ a woman. And hopes and dreams masquerade under that ‘happily ever after’ umbrella. Yet, for Turquoise and Kai, they’re seen as the outsiders, the underachievers and the disappointment – they don’t fit in despite Turquoise being a former winner.
And that is the contradictory nature that is beautifully enhanced by Peoples’ artful direction, especially when the notion of freedom is so intrinsically tied to the historical background that underpins its story – Juneteenth, the day when freedom was finally granted to Black slaves and the end of slavery. Is a woman’s life determined by status? By financial wealth? By their beauty? Whether she’s married or not? Whether you’re religious or not? Or knowing which fork to use for salads without being subjected to snobbery and ridicule? In Peoples’ script, Turquoise and Kai are Black women up against the world navigating the quiet storms of expectations, status and respectability that judges you on the values of being Black and female.
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It makes such a difference when a film’s focus and gaze is so unapologetic, uninterrupted, and uncompromising in its vision. To watch a film so confident, composed and measured with every articulated tone is what makes this film so richly rewarding. The subtle and patient build-up as evoked by Peoples’ script and direction, Emily Rice’s score and Daniel Patterson’s cinematography adds texture that celebrates intimacy and encourages self-worth. Turquoise and Kai are not saviours. They’re not there to clean up or save a community. But they’re a reflection of Black women doing the best they can, even when circumstances around them are at odds with each other.
You feel those moments whenever Turquoise has to perform mental gymnastics just to keep the financial momentum going for her daughter. There’s relentlessness in how the camera follows her, always on the move as she moves between jobs, school, church and home, deciding whether electricity or an $800 dress is more important. And in doing so, it gives a real sense of the community she belongs to, speaking volumes on privilege, ownership and what it means to be Black in America. Even something like ‘dreaming big’ can feel enclosed and cynical when the gulf between rich and poor is so evident. “American dream? Ain’t no American dream for Black folks. We gotta hold onto what we got.”
It’s a stark contrast from a film I watched recently – Miss Virginia starring Uzo Aduba. It is a phenomenally acted performance by its lead star. But the film is ultimately afraid to engage in its cultural diaspora, using a lot of generic, formulaic, and stereotypical tropes to get its message across – and that includes white saviours. Here, in Miss Juneteenth, it’s a different encapsulation altogether. Even if there’s an occasional hint of stereotypical attitudes, Peoples’ direction offers the nuance to allow them to be more than what they appear on the surface.
That’s a crucial statement which is undoubtedly reflected in the outstanding performance by Nicole Beharie. Whenever she’s alone, with the camera intimately capturing her remarks in close-ups, the anguish, the struggle and trapped recollections of being Miss Juneteenth are etched on her face. Those quiet pauses, those inner reflections are just part of the film’s inner discourse on identity and what she wants out of her life. And in turn, her resolve only exposes the hypocritical insecurities of those around her, especially the relationships in her life. Her husband Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson) wants a family reunion, but he’s unreliable. Bacon (Akron Watson), her admirer, is the opposite – quick to compliment her, but ultimately feels she needs rescuing. And because of how Peoples articulates those feelings with her characters, no-one is prepared to ask what Turquoise really wants, only projecting what they believe is right for her.
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Accompanied by newcomer Alexis Chikaeze, the mother-daughter dynamic is a beautiful and authentic encapsulation of Black love, compassion and support that’s rarely depicted on-screen. It’s fun watching a generational culture clash of evolving ideals where a mother lives her life again through her daughter, hoping she will carry the knowledge of what Juneteenth represents (and not repeat her mistakes) versus a rebellious teenager who loves dancing and wants to set her own path in life. But what uplifts the film are those pockets of small joy and the positive messages it relays with motherhood. “Phenomenal woman, that’s me” – and it celebrates that fact wholeheartedly.
Miss Juneteenth is a remarkable feature-length debut by Channing Godfrey Peoples. This is a special film – a resonating and heartfelt snapshot of Black lives living, enriched by wonderful performances by Beharie and Chikaeze. It makes an artful and profound statement on the need for more stories like this, especially from a Black female perspective. Channing Godfrey Peoples has caught my attention, and I can’t wait to see what she decides to do next.
Miss Juneteenth is out in cinemas and on digital platforms on 25th September.