Miss Juneteenth
Photograph: Vertical Entertainment
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Miss Juneteenth

4 out of 5 stars

This authentic, compassionate slice of Black American life marks the date for which it’s named in style

Zach Long

Time Out says

It’s rarely denoted on calendars but the Juneteenth holiday has finally found its way into America’s collective consciousness, on the heels of a very public reckoning with the racism that Black Americans still face. Observed on June 19, it marks the date on which federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas in 1865, officially freeing the enslaved people within the state, two-and-half years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. It’s not a federally recognised holiday, but in 2020 companies like Nike, Twitter and The New York Times gave employees the day off for the first time, recognising the importance of the momentous occasion it commemorates.

First-time writer and director Channing Godfrey Peoples’s Miss Juneteenth is set in a predominantly Black community in Fort Worth, Texas. Here, the date is marked with a parade and a beauty pageant. It’s the home of struggling ex-pageant winner Turquoise (Nicole Beharie), a single mother who dropped out of college and scrapes by working late nights at a bar, trying to build a better life for her 15-year-old daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze). Although she’s haunted by her failure to find success after being crowned, Turquoise forces her reluctant daughter to enter the competition, hoping that the grand prize of a college scholarship will be Kai’s ticket to a brighter future.

It doesn’t help that Kai’s father Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson) can’t be bothered to financially support his child when she needs it most. But in spite of all the hardship Turquoise faces, Miss Juneteenth never gets lost in self-pity or recrimination. Peoples focuses her narrative on Kai’s unflinching perseverance – and the bond she shares with her child. 

There’s wonderfully understated chemistry between Beharie and Chikaeze as mother and daughter, while Miss Juneteenth also makes some timely observations about the world around them. There are allusions to the racial disparities of incarceration and the ways in which lenders take advantage of Black business owners. It’s a story that doesn’t ignore the realities of being Black in America, acknowledging deep-seated issues that the country continues to grapple with.

The film’s release after weeks of Black Lives Matter protests may be coincidental, but Miss Juneteenth rises to the moment. The story’s beats will be familiar if you’ve ever seen a movie that builds toward a climactic competition – Little Miss Sunshine et al – but Peoples elevates a well-worn plot with naturalistic performances, a distinctive point of view and authentic Texan scenery. Don’t let the pageant trappings fool you: the resounding message of this beautifully spun tale is that everyone – regardless of the colour of their skin, the talents they possess or their ability to wear a frilly gown – deserves a shot at the future they aspire to.

Cast and crew

  • Director:Channing Godfrey Peoples
  • Screenwriter:Channing Godfrey Peoples
  • Cast:
    • Nicole Beharie
    • Kendrick Sampson
    • Alexis Chikaeze
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