MISS JUNETEENTH movie poster | ©2020 Vertical Entertainment

MISS JUNETEENTH movie poster | ©2020 Vertical Entertainment

Rating: Not Rated
Stars: Nicole Beharie, Kendrick Sampson, Alexis Chikaeze, Lori Hayes, Akron Watson
Writer: Channing Godfrey Peoples
Director: Channing Godfrey Peoples
Distributor: Vertical Entertainment
Release Date: June 19, 2020

 MISS JUNETEENTH is a slow-building but consistently engaging character study of a mother and daughter. Nicole Beharie carries the film with her expressive performance as one-time pageant winner Turquoise Jones, and gets a strong assist from Alexis Chiaeze as Turquoise’s teen daughter Kai.

Juneteenth is a holiday in black American culture that commemorates June 19, 1865, when it was announced in Texas – two years after the Emancipation Proclamation – that slavery was ended throughout the United States.

In modern Fort Worth, Texas, the Miss Juneteenth pageant is a chance for black high school girls to compete for a full-ride scholarship to the historic black college of their choice. Turquoise won the crown fifteen years ago, but for obvious reasons – Kai is just turning fifteen now – was never able to avail herself of the promised education. Instead, Kai tends bar at a friendly neighborhood joint, occasionally does postmortem cosmetics work at a local mortuary, and struggles with her religious, alcoholic mother (Lori Hayes) and unreliable, estranged-but-still-romantically-entangled husband Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson).

Turquoise is determined that Kai will triumph where her mother faltered. Kai is considerably less keen on the Miss Juneteenth competition than her mother is, but Turquoise will not be defied. But given the requirements to even get into the Miss Juneteenth pageant, will Kai be able to go the distance?

One of the pleasures of MISS JUNETEENTH, written and directed by Channing Godfrey Peoples, is the sensitivity of the relationship between parent and child. Kai has a very different outlook than Turquoise did at the same age, nor is she a stereotypically dutiful daughter. However, neither is Kai rebellious. She wants her mother to be happy, and doesn’t know how to make that happen except by trying to fulfill the goal Turquoise has set for her. Much of MISS JUNETEENTH is about both women, one young and the other younger, learning to see each other as they are, rather than only in terms of their own needs. When, late in the day, we see how Kai interprets what Turquoise has asked, it’s a happy surprise.

MISS JUNETEENTH doesn’t overly stress Turquoise’s relationship drama with either Ronnie or amorous, well-off Bacon (Akron Watson). This works in terms of making sure Turquoise and Kai remain front and center, but it also tends to make the romantic scenes feel a little perfunctory. Turquoise’s employment and friendships are depicted enough to let us feel their impact, but without much emphasis.

Courtesy of the Miss Juneteenth pageant, it’s easy enough for the film to weave in a history lesson. Loose parallels are there for those who want to draw them, but MISS JUNETEENTH is mostly about the freedom to be oneself without having to risk family bonds. It’s a universal topic and a universal longing, provided with love for its characers.

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