Miss Juneteenth


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Miss Juneteenth
"What makes the film interesting is the depth and complexity of its characters, together with the connections between them, which feel real and often defy expectations." | Photo: Daniel Patterson

Beauty pageants have a difficult place in the modern age. Whilst there are still girls who dream of winning them in the way they dream of becoming princesses or reality TV stars, plus a fair number of people who love them for their camp value, the suggestion that girls and women should be valued on the basis of their appearance and conformity to set feminine values is unpalatable for most people. The Miss Juneteenth pageant at the centre of this film is a little more complicated, however. The exclusion of African Americans from traditional US beauty standards gives it a different kind of value, and it is also, as its name suggests, intended to honour the legacy of the civil rights struggle.

Turquoise (Nicole Beharie) was a Miss Juneteenth winner in her time. She's traded off it all her life, needing the status it gives her to counter the stigma she faced as a young single mother. Now her daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) has reached the age where she's eligible to compete. Despite her hesitation, Kai loves her mother and is willing to give it a go in order to make her happy, but she doesn't have Turquoise's inherent desire for others' approval, and they have very different ideas on how to go about it. Turquoise isn't so much pushy as anxious for her daughter to do well in a world whose hardships she's all too familiar with. The two circle each other cautiously, trying to communicate their concerns without endangering their bond.

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Wrapped around this story about a shifting mother/daughter relationship is an exploration of the changing experiences of African American women and changing attitudes, more widely, about what women might aspire to. Kai has grown up with more positive role models and presents herself in a way that expresses comfort with her racial identity. Turquoise's idea of beauty is tied to conventional white femininity and manifests as a retreat from blackness. She speaks to the pageant's theme in a way that reflects the face of the civil rights struggle that's seen as acceptable by most white Americans. Kai's approach isn't asking for permission. She knows what she's entitled to and she's proud of who she is. But crucially, the film doesn't condemn the older woman for her reticence; even Kai can see something of the pressure she has faced.

Turquoise's relationship with her own parents also comes under the microscope. Her alcoholic mother (Lori Hayes) embodies a third kind of femininity, asserting her sexuality and going after what she wants without shame, which may be a factor in Turquoise's awkwardness. In her way, each of these women speaks to a different kind of resistance.

What makes the film interesting is the depth and complexity of its characters, together with the connections between them, which feel real and often defy expectations. Director Channing Godfrey Peoples has a way of focusing her camera on doorways, walls and corners that makes us intensely aware of the spaces we are in and how these rooms, this familiar town, have also contributed to shaping these women. There's a striking contrast between the family home and the formal rooms in the school where Kai learns dinner party etiquette.

All of the acting is of a high calibre, with Beharie the standout, bringing Turquoise to life not only in the moment but also in the context of her past experiences. It is Turquoise, as much as her daughter, whom we see coming of age.

Reviewed on: 07 Feb 2021
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Turquoise, a former beauty queen turned hardworking single mother, prepares her rebellious teenage daughter for the “Miss Juneteenth” pageant, hoping to keep her from repeating the same mistakes in life that she did.

Director: Channing Godfrey Peoples

Writer: Channing Godfrey Peoples

Starring: Nicole Beharie, Kendrick Sampson, Alexis Chikaeze, Lori Hayes, Marcus Maudlin

Year: 2020

Runtime: 99 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


Sundance 2020

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