Miss Juneteenth writer/director Channing Godfrey Peoples grew up celebrating Juneteenth and attending its associated pageant, and her film rings with the kind of authenticity you only get from a filmmaker who knows their subject. It has a sense of detail, a cultural richness that can’t be faked. The way sweat beads form above brows, the way flies buzz languidly over checker-print tablecloths at the local barbecue joint — watching it is truly transporting, in the best way.
Set in Texas and named for the holiday commemorating the day when Texas’s enslaved people’s were finally set free, two and half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, Miss Juneteenth follows Turquoise (Nicole Beharie), a former winner of the titular beauty pageant, who desperately wants her daughter, Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) to follow in her footsteps. Only it’s more than that. The pageant winner receives a full scholarship to the historically black college or university (HBCU) of her choice, giving her a foot in the door to a bright future, even if it hasn’t quite panned out that way for Turquoise. She’s still working multiple jobs (at a BBQ joint and a funeral parlor) and having to go into debt to pay for her daughter’s dresses. There are even whispers that she had to strip for a while (gasp!) to make ends meet. “My daughter’s my dream now,” she tells her semi-estranged ne’er-do-well husband, Ronnie (absurdly handsome Kendrick Sampson), putting a finer point on it all.
Finer points abound in Miss Juneteenth, and that’s its biggest flaw. I wish these characters had been able to interact in ways that didn’t always feel like teachable moments. Its evocative setting feels constrained by its meticulous adherence to a too-slick pitch. Plot structure is a fine thing, but you hope any story will eventually reach a point where the characters start to have minds of their own, driving the story in directions even the storyteller never quite expected.
Turquoise won her pageant performing a Maya Angelou poem, “Phenomenal Woman,” finding strength in erudition, eloquence, and precise diction. She’s trying to push her daughter the same direction, correcting her posture and grammar though Kai clearly prefers the dance team to debutante lessons. Which is to say, Miss Juneteenth is the story of a generation gap, a conflict between different ideas about what constitutes black excellence. Kai clearly thinks this finishing school stuff is a bit bougie, while Turquoise clutches pearls over Kai’s overtly sexual dance moves. Meanwhile, Turquoise’s church lady mother, played by Lori Hayes, represents a third-generation, showing up periodically to hector the other two about Jesus and periodically fall off the wagon.
It’s a well-mapped premise, a layer cake of contemporary black motherhood. But once we know about Kai’s dance team aspirations and her mother’s rigidity in demanding she perform the poem, we can more or less predict the final act. From there it’s just a matter of waiting for it to arrive. It’s also weird the way Turquoise’s stripping comes up two or three times in passing, and always as the ultimate, unexamined avatar of degradation and shame. I’d expect this from a Nicholas Sparks movie, or Tyler Perry.
The expected final act suffers less than it might have from being predictable. Peoples the director is so effective at evoking the cultural richness of her subjects that it masks some of the shortcomings of Peoples the writer. All of which makes me wish Miss Juneteenth had been less focused on the outcome of the story and more on the journey. So much of it is concerned with who wants what and why they can’t both have it when most of the joy comes from them acting on those desires.
Miss Juneteenth is great at evoking the simple pleasure of watching people do what they do — I just wish we could have gotten more of it. Like Kai actually working on the climactic performance we know is coming? Instead, it mostly lets its side characters have all the fun. Miss Juneteenth is a promising debut feature in a lot of ways, but like a lot of tweener indies, it has trouble transcending its own pitch.