Director: Channing Godfrey Peoples
Stars: Nicole Beharie, Alexis Chikaeze, Kendrick Sampson
The bond between a mother and daughter is at the centre of Channing Godfrey People’s gently pleasing Miss Juneteenth; a film which uses the American tradition of pageantry to advance a subtle probe into what it means to be African American in the Southern States.
Juneteenth itself is a charged celebration, commemorating the date that Texas slaves were finally freed in 1865… two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed on the other side of the country. Peoples’ film takes place within a Black community in rural Texas, honing in specifically on the day-to-day tribulations of Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie), a former winner of the titular prize, whose life has not lived up to the standards to which it’s organisers loftily aspire.
She works two jobs and has reminders for unpaid bills coming through the door. When she’s not waiting tables and scrubbing the bathroom at a local BBQ joint, she’s doing cash-in-hand work at a funeral parlour. Her daughter, Kai (Alexis Chikaeze), is 14 going on 15, somewhat begrudgingly following in her mother’s footsteps in pursuit of that coveted tiara. Not unreasonably – the winner receives a scholarship to the historically Black institution of their choosing – but with a kind of polite resignation that what’s Important to her mother must therefore be Important to her. Even though… it isn’t.
Turquoise doesn’t bow her head, even as the daily disappointments and money concerns (frequently caused by Kai’s gangbanging father Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson)) stack up. She’s exasperated by her daughter’s lack of commitment to the pageant that meant so much to her, that she still uses as a barometer for her own success. Barely 30, it is as though Turquoise feels that her life peaked at that moment; a sad suggestion found just around the eyes in Beharie’s pared-back and beautiful performance.
Kai would at least like to bring something of her own personality to proceedings. She’d rather dance than recite the same poem that brought her mother to fleeting glory. Turquoise dismisses the idea, in part wanting to keep her baby forever young, in part trying to generate a second chance by proxy; as though through Kai she might realise a different path for herself, to live – vicariously – again.
On the surface it’s not an atypical study of the motivations of a parent pushing their child, but the ‘Miss Juneteenth’ title is loaded with the false promises of American democracy and, particularly, freedom. That a success achieved today will be felt today. Competing for the pageant crown means scrutiny on all levels for Kai. She must monitor what she wears, how she speaks, just in case someone affiliated with the contest sees her out in public. In one scene, the candidates all attend a Cotillian lesson (table mannerisms, etiquette and the like). It has the strange feeling of domestication – something exemplary of the out-moded concept of pageantry in the first place. It seems to have little or nothing to do with the stronger themes of pride and identity that the contest could celebrate and manifest. Over 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, integration still feels like assimilation.
Not that Peoples lays this on. It’s there to find, but her tenor is always softer than the angers and frustrations brimming beneath the surface. The camerawork is handsome and steady; her frames are filled with light; her action kept within the realms of the naturalistic rather than melodramatic. At all times the focus is on the familial. On matters of love. Turquoise is filled with concerns, wound tight by the struggles of living paycheck to paycheck. Kai is an intelligent young woman who is aware of these burdens, and wants to placate her mother. The closeness between them and this tacit agreement comes to the fore in a few wonderfully played scenes. Kai’s 15th birthday celebration is cute, but also a feel-good moment we feel enthused in indulge. Meanwhile, Kai’s ultimate performance at the contest may be predictable, but it’s also calibrated perfectly to get you smiling.
As good a discovery as Chikaeze is, this is Beharie’s film through and through. I’ll reiterate it isn’t a showy performance, but it is a very giving one. We get this woman. We know her. It is credit to Beharie and Peoples that this act of transference comes through so readily, so easily. It takes a lot of hard work to make something so deftly measured seem so simple. That accomplishment extends to the whole picture, which never feels as though it needs to be representative of anything more than itself. The lightness of Peoples’ touch is impressive, and whatever comes next will be met with anticipation.