A Texas mother pushes her reluctant teen daughter to follow in her footsteps as a beauty queen. Yes, we’ve seen so many versions of this story before — but luckily, the Miss Juneteenth competition is no typical beauty pageant. It commemorates the day in 1865, some two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, when slaves in Texas were finally freed. And the movie that bears its name, set to be released on VOD on June 19th during one of the greatest racial-justice protests in history, bristles with timeliness as it celebrates young African-American women who are descendants of slaves and determined to stand on their own. Fort Worth native Channing Godfrey Peoples, making a striking feature debut as director and screenwriter, knows this place in her bones. She’s crafted a keenly observant and emotionally resonant debut film that feels authentically lived in.
None of this history means much to Kai (Dallas-born Alexis Chikaeze), the 15-year-old who’d rather be working with her competitive dance squad than contending for the honor of being crowned Miss Juneteenth, with its emphasis on etiquette and retro pageantry. It’s Kai’s striving mother Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie), the winner of the title in 2004, who yearns for her daughter to take this year’s crown. The package includes a full scholarship to a historically black college of her choice, and the challenge to do something with it. Turq, as she’s called, missed her chance, turning to stripping when Kai’s father Ronnie (Insecure‘s Kendrick Sampson) gambled away whatever he earned as a mechanic. Now Turq works as an assistant manager at Wayman’s BBQ & Lounge, where Wayman (Marcus M. Mauldin) calls her out on her progressive ideas on how to overhaul his shabby operation and her “badass man choices.” She’s also a cosmetician at a funeral home where her boss, Bacon (Akron Watson), holds out the promise of making her the First Lady of his expanding burial business. Her personal version of the American dream, however, is being beholden to nobody.
Behari, so good in American Violet, Shame, 42 and TV’s Sleepy Hollow, is clearly a major actress. She invests Turq with a determination untarnished by self pity, even when her evangelical mother (Lori Hayes) shows a disturbing devotion to the bottle. Turq’s goal is finding the $800 to buy Kai a proper dress for the pageant, kicking Kai’s no-good boyfriend (Jaime Matthis) to the curb and getting past a sexist tendency in her community to keep women in their place. And she holds the screen beautifully, which is key in movie that takes its time and requires viewers to settle in. There are no exploding fireworks in the cinematography by Daniel Patterson, the editing by Courtney Ware or the score by Emily Rice. It only seems like a quiet thing, telling the story of a single black mother, living from paycheck to paycheck. But in her struggle for a social justice that might allow her to own her identity and run a business by herself, Turq is illuminating a world too often neglected on screen.
Behari and Chikaeze work together beautifully to show a mother-daughter bond that still allows each woman her self-determination. The climatic pageant scenes, accompanied by a parade and streamers, come down to who these women are. Turq begs her daughter to recite the same poem that helped her win the Miss Juneteenth title in 2004. But Turq didn’t raise a daughter to copycat anyone. So Kai does her own interpretation of Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman.” It doesn’t matter whether Turq has her way or Kai wins or loses, it’s Angelou’s poetry that reflect them both: “Pretty women wonder where my secret lies/I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size/But when I start to tell them, they think I’m telling lies/I say, It’s in the reach of my arms/the span of my hips/the stride of my step/the curl of my lips/I’m a woman/phenomenally/Phenomenal woman, that’s me.” You feel the truth of those words in every frame.