Miss Juneteenth is a pageant for young Black women, one that combines charm school, the opportunity to receive an academic scholarship, and the glamour of a traditional beauty pageant. But for Turquoise Jones, played empathetically by Nicole Beharie, it’s everything. A former Miss Juneteenth winner herself, she will stop at nothing to make sure that her own daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) has a chance to compete, regardless of how Kai actually feels about the pageant. It becomes her life’s goal, the one achievement that her perceived success or failure as a parent hinges upon.
Turquoise is perpetually stuck between the past and the future. She has become obsessed with the Miss Juneteenth pageant, because it represents a time in her life that was filled with nothing but promise and hope for the future. As Miss Juneteenth, she was the queen of her small Texan town, a title that she would have to hastily put to the side after becoming pregnant and giving up the scholarship awarded to her through the pageant. Fiercely determined, she devotes all her energies to helping Kai in the competition, which she not-so-subconsciously views as a do-over, a chance to see Kai avoid the mistakes she made.
But as much as Turquoise tends to wallow in the past, it’s also clear that everything she does is with an eye on the future. Her daughter is the sole focus of her life, and she pours all her drive and ambition into setting her up for the kind of life that is free from worry and hardship. She’s stuck between the past and the future, in no small part because the present, for Turquoise, is exhausting. Working long hours at a bar while trying to raise a teenager and navigate a complicated relation with Kai’s well-intentioned but frequently disappointing father, it seems like every time she starts to get ahead, something happens to throw a wrench in her plans.
And in a lot of ways, the pageant itself represents this conflict between the past and the future. The winner of Miss Juneteenth gets a full-ride scholarship to any HBCU (Historically Black College or University) of their choosing, which is a life-changing opportunity for these teenagers and a clear investment in the future. But at the same time, it embraces old-fashioned ideas, particularly in the debutante-style training it offers its participants. Teaching a group of teenagers which cutlery to use at an extremely formal dinner may be useful if any of them find themselves dining with the queen. But it also feels like increasingly obsolete knowledge based on an outdated concept of what young ladies will need to know to be successful in society, one that is at odds with their actual lived experiences.
With “Miss Juneteenth,” director Channing Godfrey Peoples builds an intimate, understated narrative, one that is part family drama and part bittersweet character study. Nicole Beharie is nothing short of remarkable in the lead role of Turquoise Jones, her eyes speaking volumes throughout the film. She builds layers of complexities: wounded pride as she is forced to face the haughty women who run the Miss Juneteenth pageant and politely disapprove of her choices, an uncrushable sense of optimism as she wearily but determinedly scrimps and saves to make sure that Kai has what she needs to be a success.
Chikaeze’s performance as Kai is also noteworthy: it’s tough for a young actor to resist the urge to push a character rebelling against her mother to extremes, but she never parodies the teen experience and has a compelling undercurrent of empathy running through the character. Her performance of Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” marks a major turning point for Kai, and the raw power it contains should serve as a calling card for a young actress with tremendous talent. The film relies on the dynamic between Turquoise and Kai as much as the two characters rely on each other, and together they present the image of two Black women who will always support one another regardless of their differences in opinion. The Miss Juneteenth beauty pageant has a lot to say about appropriate role models: how they should look, and how they should act. But Turquoise and Kai, with their strength, compassion, and love, represent two of the very best.
Directed by: Channing Godfrey Peoples
Written by: Channing Godfrey Peoples
Cast: Nicole Beharie, Kendrick Sampson, Alexis Chikaeze