Miss Juneteenth

 

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A rewarding Texan tale about a black mother and daughter that is more personal than political.

 
Miss Juneteenth

  

It's not only the reopening of cinemas that has given some encouragement to film enthusiasts within the last two months. During that time we have seen a handful of first features of real promise by newcomers making films which they have not only directed but which they have also written with or without an associate. I have in mind such people as Alexandre Moratto (Sócrates), Aki Omoshaybi (Real), Nathan Worthington (A Thousand Miles Behind), Kaan Müjdeci (Sivas) and Gints Zilbalodis (Away). To this list can now be added Channing Godfrey Peoples who as writer and director gives us Miss Juneteenth, a film set in a black suburb of Fort Worth, Texas. It is clearly a community that she knows well and she brings it to the screen with an absolute sense of authenticity enhanced by outstanding performances in the two leading roles from Nicole Beharie and Alexis Chikaeze.

 

The first half of Miss Juneteenth, which introduces us to Turquoise (Beharie) and her 14-year-old daughter Kai (Chikaeze), is outstanding. In their hometown the annual Miss Juneteenth pageant is an important event commemorating as it does the eventual freedom of slaves in that area which came about in June 1865. The winner is not merely crowned as a beauty queen but is given a scholarship to a college. Turquoise had been one such winner but had lost the chance to benefit through the scholarship by becoming pregnant with Kai. Now that her daughter is of an age to compete she is determined that Kai will succeed. Her motivation is convincingly complex. She hugely loves her child and undoubtedly sees the scholarship as an opportunity for Kai to have a better life than she herself has had (we see that Turquoise is struggling to make ends meet   working not only as a bar waitress but also assisting part-time at a funeral home). But in a sense she also wants to relive what her own life might have been through her daughter and she is at times too controlling in her determination that Kai will not repeat her own mistakes and will have a very different life. Furthermore, we are shown clearly how Kai's outlook being that of another generation differs from that of her mother, this being something that Turquoise doesn't or won't understand. Even so the bond between them goes deep. Both actresses are superb and aided by the screenplay they achieve that degree of reality that gives the viewer the impression that these people continue to exist outside the scenes in which we see them on screen.

 

The editing by Courtney Ware gives the first half of the film a deep sense of fluency while the direction brings to this everyday chronicle something of the conviction that made Chloé Zhao's The Rider (2017) so remarkable. Turquoise and Kai are very much the centre of this work, but there are also convincing subsidiary portraits both small (Liz Mikel as a fellow employee in the bar; Phyllis Cicero as the school principal) and large (Kendrick Sampson as Kai's father who is unreliable but with whom Turquoise is still involved and still in love despite their living apart). Yet for all these qualities Miss Juneteenth does not, I think, fully live up to its immense initial promise. One character in particular, Turquoise's mother (Lori Hayes), is shown to be strongly religious unlike her daughter but also a troubled alcoholic, an unexpected blend that calls out for more exploration than it receives. Then again there's a sense that compared to the compelling realism of the early scenes to introduce a rival for Turquoise's affections in the form of the owner of the funeral parlour (Akron Watson) carries with it a touch of conventional fiction. The main weakness, however is that, while the film's sense of understatement valuably avoids any sense of melodrama, it also brings to the film's second half a certain lack of momentum even if we do know that the pageant and its outcome is bound to provide the film with a climax. There is, too, a rather rushed change in Turquoise's attitude late on.

 

That said, none of these are major flaws and there is much here of exceptional quality. For the two lead performances alone this is a film to be cherished and the direction by Channing Godfrey Peoples shows an exceptional assurance in many scenes combining as it does adroit storytelling with a deep sense of being totally true to ordinary life in the American South.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Nicole Beharie, Alexis Chikaeze, Kendrick Sampson, Lori Hayes, Liz Mikel, Akron Watson, Marcus M. Mauldin, Mikayla Rivers, Jaime Matthis, Phyllis Cicero, Lisha Hackney.

 

Dir Channing Godfrey Peoples, Pro Toby Halbrooks, Tim Headington, Jeanie Igoe, James M. Johnston, Theresa Page and Neil Creque Williams, Screenplay Channing Godfrey Peoples, Ph Daniel Patterson, Pro Des Olivia Peebles, Ed Courtney Ware, Music Emily Rice, Costumes Rachel Dainer-Best.

 

Ley Line Entertainment/Sailor Bear-Vertigo Releasing.
99 mins. USA. 2020. Rel: 25 September 2020. Available in cinemas and on BFI Player and other digital platforms. Cert. 15.