There are many who won’t recognize the lead actress in writer/director Channing Godfrey Peoples’ first feature Miss Juneteenth. Nicole Beharie is another of the highly-talented, woefully underutilized Black actors that deserve far more recognition and far wider casting options. Though you may not know her award-winning turn in 2008’s American Violet, a fictionalized account of the civil rights lawsuit Regina Kelly v. John Paschall, you might recall her as the best part of Fox’s series, Sleepy Hollow. It’s a pleasure to see her in Miss Juneteenth, where she shines, bringing life to a beleaguered single mother in Texas, working to make a better life for her daughter.
The film is releasing on the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth, June 19th, 2020. Juneteenth, which originated in Texas, is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of slavery in the US, and marks the day news came that the enslaved were free. This was two and a half years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. It has grown to become a day around the country where Black Americans recognize Black excellence, and reflect on and pray about their history. It’s also focused on education and self improvement. Texas-native Peoples drew from her experience attending Juneteenth pageants, a beauty pageant held every year for young Black women that gleans the winner a scholarship to the historically Black college of her choice.
Miss Juneteenth is about former pageant winner Turquoise Jones (Beharie) who struggles to keep the lights on by working as part-time mortuary cosmetologist, and full-time manager keeping control and handling drama at Wayman’s BBQ and Lounge. She has a bone-deep desire to see her beloved 15-year-old daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) take the Miss Juneteenth throne, and use it to thrive in ways she herself each could not. Though the plot centers on the pageant, it is as much about the freedom that both Turquoise and Kai long for, and strain to get for themselves. As with the holiday of Juneteenth, Turquoise is coming to freedom far later than she would like.
What most keeps the movie together, beyond Beharie’s great talent for nuance and unadorned authenticity, is the love and commitment this mother and daughter hold for each other. They want nothing less than that both find happiness and peace, whatever that means to them. Kai for Turquoise and Turquoise for Kai, they stand in power for each other, if not for themselves. It is in their shared knowledge of being loved that each finds their way forward, making good choices for their future. It is a powerful message, and perfectly expressive of the best of what the Juneteenth holiday represents. It is also another vehicle showing Nicole Beharie’s range, and it is hoped that casting agents and producers around Hollywood will take note.
4 out of 5 stars