Channing Godfrey Peoples’ first feature (which he wrote and directed) stars Nicole Beharie as Turquoise Jones, a former pageant winner, whose life remained the same despite winning the coveted Miss Juneteenth pageant. Now a hard-working single worker, she dreams of planning a better future for her daughter.
Turquoise Jones, the former Miss Juneteenth, gives life to a modern young woman’s struggles in the predominantly Black suburb of Fort Worth, Texas. It’s a slow-moving, but tender drama that leans heavily on this central character who is reminded and humbled by her former pageant queen status as she struggles to insert her dreams into her teenage daughter.
Again—this is a slow film and not everyone’s cup-of-tea but in its defense, it does present the viewer with a look at a community giving the indie film a strong sense of place.
The holiday for which the pageant is named is made to bring awareness to the 1865 abolition of slavery in the holdout Confederate Lone Star state. These White Texan men cared about money and it took a full two years after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation that the slaves were freed. There is an underpinning that Texas is still holding Black people back and making them “as a slave-like” as possible. Here in this community, the American “dream” continues to pass them by.
The story opens with Turquoise Jones (Beharie) still admiring the tiara and dress she wore, in 2004, when she won was crowned Miss Juneteenth. Here—in the first frames of the film—we understand that Turquoise Jones is stuck and utterly unaware that she’s moving in the same space. Not going backward, but not going forward either.
She’s a hard worker, a hustler without pretense. Turquoise manages a simple, no-frills barbecue and bar joint, where she has saved just enough in tips to cover an expensive pageant dress for her very reluctant 15-year-old daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) to wear in this year’s Miss Juneteenth contest.
Kai is not interested and is focused instead on perfecting her dance moves at school to join a crew. She’s not that good despite practicing. One of the perks in winning the Miss Juneteenth is receiving a full scholarship to any traditionally Black educational institution of the winner’s choice. It’s a very big win but one that doesn’t seem to have any weight with the teenager.
The story turns quickly into a typical and classic mother-daughter dynamic using the pageant (past and present) to massage the story, inch-by-inch forward. Again—this is a very slow movie.
A rebellious Kai eventually decides to find her way, which includes “dating” a boy that her mother disapproves of and forbids her to see.
Turquoise continues to make bad choices. She doesn’t pay the electric bill to her house because she used it to pay for the pageant fees. Her bad choices continue as she continues to force her dream onto Kai.
Kai has a strange and strained relationship with her father, an auto mechanic Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson), a gambler who seems broken by the system but all-in-all is a loving man who truly wants Turquoise and his daughter in his life.
The hustle is real and for Turquoise that includes working, part-time, at a funeral home where the owner Bacon (Akron Watson) makes it clear that he wants to marry her as they expand his business. Bacon is a romantic and in one such moment he turns up at her door in a fancy cowboy outfit to take her to a dance on his horse.
What I enjoyed about this very slow movie (it’s a loving warning) is that it presents the rhythms of small-town life and we understand the obstacles in Turquoise’s path some of which she created and maintained herself.
We also get a look at her alcoholic mother (Lori Hayes) who wonders (aloud) and questions if she was a good mother?
The set up of the pageant is evident from the first frame of the movie and this built-in destination is laced throughout the film but when we finally get there — well—it’s anti-climatic with no surprises at all.
Despite the hiccups of Channing Godfrey Peoples’ first film and it’s snail slow pace (yawn) — there is great promise in Peoples’ ability and desire to share stories about the heroes that live in our ordinary world and I salute the filmmaker for doing just that.
“Miss Juneteenth” stars Nicole Beharie, Kendrick Sampson, Alexis Chikaeze, Liz Mikel, Markus M. Mauldin, Lori Hayes, Akron Watson, Jaime Matthis, Phyllis Cicero and Directed/screenplay by Channing Godfrey Peoples
“Miss Juneteenth” in theaters and on Digital and On-Demand on June 19, 2020 (103 minutes).