Written by: Channing Godfrey Peoples
Starring: Nicole Beharie, Kendrick Sampson, Alexis Chikaeze, Liz Mikel, Marcus Mauldin
Avenues of success come with predetermined passageways of one’s elders based on experience. What may appear to be a valuable option for someone may be wildly different for others, which gets explored in the beautifully touching Miss Juneteenth. It takes the idea of a parent trying to live vicariously through their child but in a manner grounded in the experience of the mother-daughter dynamic and does so with genuine emotion.
Former Miss Juneteenth winner, Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie) works at a bar and hopes to have her daughter join the same competition that brought her so much pride to win. While her daughter, Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) would prefer to dance competitively, Turquoise sees this as the opportunity to set her daughter up for success, as it comes with a full-ride scholarship to a historically Black college.
Being raised with an alcoholic mother and absent father, Turquoise’s hope in shifting her daughter’s experience comes from a place of love and a chance to rectify her own experience. This effort shows how much she pushes Kai to take this competition seriously and remains in an unsupportive marriage with the father. In her eyes, having the presence of the father figure far outweighs the drawbacks of him being fairly useless. Turquoise lives a life taped to together by her own will and she refuses to let the adhesive lose its grip. The narrative insinuates what it took for Turquoise to win the competition when younger, but also what occurred shortly after that derailed the life plan she sought for herself. Learning this further shows why she has this laser focus on the competition, as the benefits she could have received were not collected and she will be damned if she allowed the same thing to happen to her own daughter.
Wanting better for your child comes naturally as shown at each step where she refuses to do things at half-measure like when she insists in purchasing an $800 dress for the pageant rather than going thrift shopping for one similarly to when she won in her youth. All of these moments display the unbridled passion Turquoise has for her daughter’s success but also utilizing her as a conduit for redemption for where she slipped up in life. Other films displaying this dynamic from the child’s perspective, which shows the process being unfair to them but Miss Juneteenth demonstrates its ever-loving spirit. Even in moments where Kai shows her unhappiness with what her mother asks her to do, it all comes from a place of love and the film never forgets it.
At the very least Miss Juneteenth shows the struggle of a single mother just finding people to watch her daughter, as she tries everything to help her succeed. From her emotionally abusive mother or a neighbor, Turquoise somehow needs to manage it all because her husband certainly will not contribute in a meaningful manner and the money she makes as a bartender does not provide the necessary funds to satisfy every need and want. Through all of it, Turquoise’s perseverance truly sticks out to demonstrate how she will not settle for less and really plays into the film’s strengths as a whole. It plays with the narrative of a single mom trying to make everything work, while also surrounding her with examples of how everything almost came together perfectly for her. Whether it be the useless husband or the pageant happening each year, Turquoise gets a reminder of what her life could have amounted for and instead of being bogged down in it, she pushes her daughter to achieve it for both of their sakes.
Anchoring this entire feature is Nicole Beharie as Turquoise. An equal measure of power and love emanates through this performance. So many instances set up situations where Turquoise could rightfully lose her composure, but she just continues to persevere through the nonsense life has thrown at her. She certainly does not suffer fools and Beharie taps into this with her performance, as she strongly captures the moments of restraint. No one could blame her if she were to just loudly scream from frustration at how she cannot get the smallest things done due to the people around her. All of the hardship only continues to harden this character and shows the everlasting love she holds even for the people only looking to make her life harder.
Beautifully poignant in its execution and incredibly touching at its core, Miss Juneteenth follows a narrative structure seen before but never done with the amount of empathy and care of this film. It serves as an excellent feature film debut for Channing Godfrey Peoples, as she takes us right into the fray of this situation and continually unravels the reality of the situation of Turquoise. Some revelations come as expected to fully round out this character, but the manner in which she does it demonstrates proficiency as a screenwriter because of the seamless nature and as a director with the different visual tricks she utilizes to add the emphasis. This will surely connect with mothers more than anything else, but in the end, it ultimately tells a story about perseverance and continuing to push on even if life continually deals you a bad hand.