Earlier this year, Philippa Lowthorpe’s socio-comedy Misbehaviour entertainingly addressed the intersection between sexism and racism through the bizarre real-life pageantry of the disrupted 1970 Miss World competition in London. A very different pageant plays out in Fort Worth, Texas, in this impressive debut feature from writer-director Channing Godfrey Peoples. Following a mother’s attempts to pass her own interrupted ambitions on to her teenage daughter, Miss Juneteenth is a beautifully observed and quietly powerful drama that applies its coming-of-age tropes to children, parents and politics alike.
Nicole Beharie, who played Rachel Robinson to Chadwick Boseman’s Jackie in 42, is Turquoise Jones, a former beauty queen (she keeps her crown in a box) juggling shifts at Wayman’s BBQ bar, and at the local funeral parlour. “I will never get over seeing Miss Juneteenth cleaning toilets!” laughs her fluorescent-haired friend and workmate Betty Ray (Liz Mikel). Following an unexpected life turn (the details are implied rather than explained), Turquoise now invests all her energy in ensuring that her headstrong daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) should win the forthcoming Miss Juneteenth competition, and claim the college scholarship to “any historically black institution” that goes with it.
“I’m gonna make sure she’s something that we ain’t,” Turquoise tells Kai’s jailbird father Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson) as she scrimps and saves tips to pay for the competition’s registration fee, and for the $800 dress that she is sure will win the day. As for Kai, she’s more interested in dreaming of dance team trials and hanging out with her beatboxing boyfriend (both to the disapproval of her mother), and in finding her own identity, her own moves.
Described by its creator as a film that asks “What happens when good news comes too late?”, this Sundance festival favourite (already tipped by Variety as an Oscar contender) does an excellent job of intertwining the personal and the political, deftly embracing the complex nature of its titular pageant, and the date from which it takes its name. While a typically tone-deaf Donald Trump may have recently declared that “nobody had ever heard of it” until “I made Juneteenth very famous” (he apparently knew nothing of it when clumsily planning a campaign rally in Tulsa earlier this year), the commemoration of an end of slavery on 19 June, 1865, has long held a profound significance for African Americans such as Peoples. “Juneteenth is our holiday,” the imperious Mrs Washington (Phyllis Cicero) tells these young pageant hopefuls. “Not only will you represent your beautiful selves, but our history as well,” pointing out that this history included a two-year delay following Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation of 1863 before freedom finally arrived in Texas.
Peoples understands the rhythms and the resilience of this community, clearly relishing the blend of grit and beauty
That sense of delayed or deferred emancipation runs throughout Miss Juneteenth, as Turquoise continues to fight battles against inequality (gender, race, wealth, opportunity) as a working single mother. “You won that thing,” says her own mother scornfully, intoxicated by spirits – both holy and alcoholic. “What good did it do you?”
Yet despite a strong historical political underpinning, it’s the warm and empathetic portrayal of day-to-day life that shines through this winner of the Texan SXSW film festival’s Louis Black “Lone Star” award. Having grown up in Fort Worth, Peoples understands the rhythms and the resilience of this community, clearly relishing the blend of grit and beauty that lies at the heart of her film. It’s significant that Turquoise and Kai turn to Maya Angelou’s poem Phenomenal Woman as a defining mantra, although the differing ways in which each interprets it says much about the ever-evolving world in which they live.
Lovingly shot by cinematographer Daniel Patterson, and sparingly scored by Emily Rice, Miss Juneteenth is full of hauntingly affectionate images: a street scene brimming with life; lived-in houses glimpsed through the window of a car; an indomitable woman dancing on her own by a jukebox at the end of a hot summer evening. There are struggles still to be faced, but the message of Peoples’s film is one of love, hope and change.
Miss Juneteenth is in cinemas and available on VOD platforms