Much of writer/director Channing Godfrey Peoples’ feature debut, Miss Juneteenth, could be called shopworn: A young mother whose big dreams were derailed by becoming a teen parent tries to force her feisty, reluctant daughter to live out those desires.
But this time, the story feels different. For starters, it opens with an a cappella, heartfelt rendition of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” the black national anthem. And secondly, the setting is a working-class, low-income black suburb of Fort Worth, Texas, where eating barbecued meat is a daily ritual and people still smoke indoors.
The movie has an extremely textured quality that feels genuine and almost tactile: yellowing old photographs, chipping wall paint, creaky screen doors and sagging couches that have absorbed decades of naps. It feels like little has changed here, and rarely does.
And because it’s Texas and because the movie is centered on black people, the annual Juneteenth celebration is bigger than the Fourth of July. The day marks June 19, 1865, when enslaved black people in Texas were freed, even though the Emancipation Proclamation had ended slavery in the country more than two years before.
The festivities also underpin the film’s annual Miss Juneteenth pageant, won in 2004 by the radiantly beautiful Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie, 42), who works multiple jobs to ensure a better life for her equally beautiful, often ungrateful, 15-year-old daughter Kai (newcomer Alexis Chikaeze).
Turquoise pushes Kai to become a pageant participant, in hopes that she will win and secure a full scholarship to college. She’s equally strict and loving toward her daughter and is adamant that Kai not become pregnant, as she did, and lose a chance at higher education and security. As folks often remind Turquoise — including her alcoholic, evangelical mother — “You won that thing. What good did it do you?”
Miss Juneteenth feels a bit slow at times and has an inconsistent narrative drive — after all, Kai doesn’t even want to be in the pageant, so it’s hard to root for her sulkily “trying” to win it — but Beharie is so good it almost doesn’t matter. You have a sense that no matter what, Kai will be fine because Turquoise is her mother. All along, you’re actually rooting for Turquoise to notch another win, so she can finally put that sparkly old crown up on a shelf and live out an even better dream.
Available to rent starting June 19 via grailmoviehouse.com