A portmanteau of June and nineteenth, Juneteenth is an American-specific holiday predominantly observed by African Americans celebrating the emancipation of those who had been enslaved in the United States. The importance of this day serves as the backbone for Channing Godfrey Peoples‘ Miss Juneteenth, though it never hits as hard as one might expect, offering an at-times old-fashioned and predictable narrative surrounding the pageant that honours local African American teenagers in their bid to win a college scholarship.
Whatever shortcomings the story has are overcome with ease however due to Nicole Behari‘s stunning central performance as former crowned glory Turquoise Jones. Despite taking home the win some 15 years prior, she was unable to follow through on utilising the pageant’s benefits, having to withdraw from her education due to becoming pregnant. Evidently intelligent and incredibly hard-working, Turquoise’s hard luck comes predominantly from outside influences she knows she shouldn’t tend to but can’t seem to help herself; her alcoholic mother and ex-husband being the heaviest burdens she bares.
The need for such a pageant as Miss Juneteenth speaks to a systemic racism that is unfortunately still a rampant issue – particularly in the US – and though the film never directly addresses this in an aggressive manner, the way it frames Turquoise speaks volumes as to how a woman of colour has to prove herself that much more. She works tirelessly and constantly self-sabotages, and her incessant push for her own daughter (Alexis Chikaeze‘s Kai) to compete in the pageant is its own commentary on how parents wish for more for their children, even if its against their own child’s wishes.
The environment of Fort Worth, Texas is one that feels familiar to these type of working class narratives, where the housing is precarious, local barbecue restaurants serve as a congregation for the town folk and religion is, above all, key. It’s the type of setting where the Miss Juneteenth pageant feels at once that much more glamorous and yet useless; knowing the difference between a salad fork and an entree fork doesn’t feel like the most valid information, especially to someone as disinterested as Kai.
The trials and tribulations of Turquoise’s daily life lend the film a familiarity, with Kai’s defiance in wanting to be a dancer rather than compete in the pageant, the on-again-off-again mentality of her relationship with her ex (Kendrick Sampson), and the hypocritical actions of her Church-preaching mother (Lori Hayes) feeling like plot beats that never surprise in their revelations. But whatever criticism the story presents, Miss Juneteenth proves worthy nonetheless, thanks in large part to Behari who completely encapsulates Turquoise, flaws and all. The system may be stacked against her but she can’t help but to solider on, and it’s through Behari’s beautiful, understated performance that the film’s voice is that much louder.
THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Miss Juneteenth is screening in select Australian cinemas from October 8th 2020.