MOVIE OF THE WEEK June 19, 2020: MISS JUNETEENTH

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motw logo 1-35 In a time when too much of the world is very belatedly waking up to the significance of Juneteenth — the holiday marking the day in 1865 when enslaved Black people in Texas finally learned of Abraham Lincoln’s 1862 Emancipation Proclamation — Channing Godfrey Peoples’ coming-of-age drama Miss Juneteenth offers a thoughtful, relevant glimpse inside Black life in Texas more than 150 years after that momentous day.
 
The film centers on Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie), who won Fort Worth’s annual Miss Juneteenth pageant as a teen and now dreams of the same crown and scholarship for her daughter, Kai (Alexis Chikaeze). But Kai is far more interested in honing her hip hop-fueled dance skills than in practicing her posture or learning the intricacies of etiquette. As mother and daughter butt heads over expectations for the big event, Turquoise also works hard at two jobs to get ahead, negotiates her complicated relationship with Kai’s dad, Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson), and tries valiantly to stand up to her own difficult and demanding mother (Lori Hayes).

As Turquoise and Kai move toward a better understanding of each other, they learn that there are different ways to define success — and that they value each other’s perspective on what it means to be a Black woman. Beharie and Chikaeze give nuanced, lived-in performances; they’re absolutely believable as a mother and her teenage daughter, see-sawing between verbal jabs and moments of emotional empathy.

Turquoise has spent her life looking at the pageant as the symbol of the life she should have led, while Kai sees it as everything she knows she doesn’t want for herself. Ultimately, though, the Miss Juneteenth pageant helps them find common ground, and the film creates greater awareness about the significance of the Juneteenth holiday. And, that is very worth celebrating. — Betsy Bozdech

Team #MOTW’s comments:

Sharronda Williams Channing Godfrey Peoples’ Miss Juneteenth is a beautiful exploration into the dreams we have for our children and the lengths we go to make sure they are realized. Nicole Beharie delivers a phenomenal performance as her character explores the regrets of her life choices while also showing how Black women continue to overcome no matter what life brings their way. Peoples delivers a promising debut that will leave many excited to see what is next in her bright career. Read full review.

Nell Minow: First-time feature writer/director Channing Godfrey Peoples creates an exceptionally evocative sense of place and community in this film. We really believe the deep and complicated history of this group of people. Beharie shows us that pushing Kai is as much about a second chance for herself as it is about Kai, and that she is bringing that same sense of determination that won her the crown to make it happen. Even the smallest parts are layered, sympathetically portrayed, and real, especially Kendrick Sampson’s Ronnie and Lori Hayes as Turquoise’s mother. The issue of “success” defined as emulating upper-class white traditions and of the eternal struggle of parents to provide guidance to adolescents while allowing them to be themselves are explored with delicacy. The heart of the film in every way is Beharie, who makes Turquoise every bit the phenomenal woman her pageant poem by Maya Angelou describes.

Loren King What a lovely film for right now. Miss Juneteenth is a feel good story with grit, an empowerment tale and family drama about Black lives rich with three dimensional characters and as atmospheric as the Fort Worth, Texas bar and barbecue joint where much of the actions takes place. Miss Juneteenth crackles with authenticity and humanity. Read full review.

MaryAnn Johanson I’ve said it before, and I’ll keep saying it: When women make movies, we get new takes on familiar stories that make us see them afresh. We’ve seen tales like the one Miss Juneteenth tells before, but Channing Godfrey Peoples’s beautiful feature debut bursts with a gorgeous sense of place and character (it is set and was shot in her hometown) that elevates it above the ordinary. More importantly, it tells its tale, of a former beauty queen and struggling single mom, through eyes we haven’t seen this story told before: those of a Black woman. Nicole Beharie’s performance, one of strength and weariness seesawing within her, is terrific, and the troubles her character is battling are ones that many American women will recognize. And so this is a case where familiarity breeds empathy, underscoring the truth that however our differences can mold our lives in divergent ways — and Miss Juneteenth does not deny that the color of its protagonist’s skin significantly shapes her experience of the world — we all have much in common, too. It seems an obvious thing, but it’s always worth saying it once more. Read full review.

Pam Grady: Turquoise Jones’s (Nicole Beharie) reign as Miss Juneteenth in a small Texas town did not lead to the fabulous future she was expecting, but now she is getting a second bite at the apple through her 15-year-old daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) in writer/director Channing Godfrey Peoples’ keenly observant feature debut. A mother’s push to run a reluctant Kai in the scholarship pageant is less about vicariously reliving her youth than securing a better future for her child, one free of Turquoise’s burdens of working two jobs and an unreliable partner in Kai’s dad Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson). Peoples captures the quotidian rhythm of life in a sleepy burg where a man might come courting on horseback and where an entire community comes together when one of its own falls to illness. But the true magnificence of the director’s screenplay comes through in that central mother-daughter relationship between Turquoise and Kai. The two negotiate a sometimes fraught relationship fueled by tiny hurts, a generation gap, and a reluctance to see each other’s side in things, yet what come through most resonantly in Beharie (42, Monsters and Men) and newcomer Chikaeze’s warm, heartfelt performances is the unshakeable bond between parent and child.

Kathia Woods One of the most dynamic relationships is that of a mother and daughter. It is a bond like no other. Miss Juneteenth examines that bond intelligently and with raw honesty. Channing Godfrey Peoples uses a beauty pageant in a small town in Texas as the background for this story. A beauty contest is held yearly on Juneteenth to celebrate the liberation of Slaves as well as offer young ladies an opportunity to showcase their talents in competition for a scholarship. The scholarship offers the young contestants a chance to leave the confines of small-town America. Nicole Beharie, best known from the Fox drama Sleepy Hollow, plays Turquoise Jones. Turquoise is a former Miss Juneteenth and has her sights set on having her daughter follow in her footsteps. Turquoise is smart, innovative, and hard-working, but she can’t let go of a dysfunctional relationship with the father of her child. Sadly, this is behavior all too familiar in many women’s lives. Miss Juneteenth delves into the cause and effect of such challenging choices. This is an outstanding film and Nicole Beharie’s performance should be on everyone’s year end list. She has been solid for years and this film might finally make everyone take notice of her fine work. We also get a glimpse into the Juneteenth Celebration and what it means to Black America.

Leslie Combemale Miss Juneteenth is about former pageant winner Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie), a single mom, who struggles to keep the lights on by working two jobs. 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. Read full review.

Jennifer Merin Miss Juneteenth, writer/director Channing Godfrey Peoples’ thoroughly engaging first feature, is a coming of age drama about a Black family living in a small town near Fort Worth, Texas. Turquoise (Nicole Beharie), a former Miss Juneteenth Scholarship Pageant winner, is now a single mom, working two jobs to pay the rent and grooming her teenage daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) to compete for the same title, crown and college funding she’d won years ago — but not been able to take full advantage of. But Kai, who is free-spirited and thinks the pageant’s etiquette lessons and dress code are lame, wants no part of it. There’s family friction, but there’s also a great deal of love and respect. The annual Miss Juneteenth Scholarship Pageant, a major event in Fort Worth’s Black community, is a well-chosen stage for this exquisitely nuanced mother-daughter drama.

Marina Antunes Channing Godfrey Peoples’ Miss Juneteenth provides a look at the often complicated relationships between mothers and daughters; in this case Turquoise, a once promising pageant queen who wants nothing more than to do better for her daughter than her mother did for her, and Kai, her strong-willed daughter who wants to please her mother while still being herself. Peoples’ infuses her mother-daughter drama with a specificity and nuance that makes Miss Juneteenth special.

Susan Wloszczyna: There are many films about parents who want their offspring to fulfill the youthful dreams that they never achieved, but Miss Juneteenth brings extra emotion because the characters live in an underserved Black community where most residents just scrape by. The pageant provides a coveted college scholarship for the winner. Director Channing Godfrey Peoples injects enough atmosphere on screen to make us feel for these folks and their travails. Read full review.

Sandie Angulo Chen: Beauty pageant movies are usually funny affairs about unconventional contestants who manage to win or at least teach everyone a lesson in the attempt. Miss Juneteenth is different. It’s a well-timed drama about Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie), a former beauty pageant queen who was never able to take advantage of her scholarship to an HBCU because of an unexpected pregnancy. Sixteen years later, the BBQ joint and funeral home staffer has her own 15-year-old daughter (Kai) she desperately hopes will win, even if it means pawning her belongings to pay for the fees. Beharie, who has always had a remarkable gravitas and intensity on the level of Regina King and Cynthia Erivo, is wonderful here. She carries director Channing Godfrey Peoples’ debut film, despite its predictable turns, with such nuance that one can only hope she’ll get many more chances to play leading roles.

Cate Marquis Juneteenth is the traditional African American celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation, on June 19, the date when the last Black community learned at last, in 1865, that they were free. The touching drama Miss Juneteenth is a mother-and-daughter tale about a Miss Juneteenth Pageant that takes place annually in a small Black community in Texas. It is not uncommon for parents to play out unfulfilled dreams through their children but this version takes some different turns. Turquoise (Nicole Beharie) actually won the Miss Juneteenth contest but before she could use the college scholarship that came with the crown, life intervened. Since then, Turquoise’s dream has been for her daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) to win the crown and complete the college experience she missed out on. The now-teenage daughter doesn’t particularly want to be Miss Juneteenth but she loves her hard-working, financially-struggling mother and wants to help her achieve her long-delayed dream. Still, the story takes different turns than those we expect, leaving us with a fresh tale that is also a warm and satisfying family drama.

FILM DETAILS:

Title: Miss Juneteenth

Directors: Channing Godfrey Peoples

Release Date: June 19, 2020

Running Time: 103 minutes

Language: English

Screenwriter: Channing Godfrey Peoples

Distribution Company: Vertical Entertainment

Trailer

Official Website

AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Marina Antunes, Nikki Baughan, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Pam Grady, MaryAnn Johanson, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Liz Whittemore, Sharronda Williams, Susan Wloszczyna, Kathia Woods

Previous #MOTW Selections

Other Movies Opening This Week

Edited by Jennifer Merin

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).