It might feel like pandering that a movie called “Miss Juneteenth” is being released on Juneteenth 2020 but while more Americans are becoming aware of the holiday recognizing the emancipation of American slaves Juneteenth is far from a new concept. In fact, it’s been celebrated in the United States for 155 years with one popular part of the festivities being the Miss Juneteenth pageants that give this film its name. “Miss Juneteenth” acknowledges the holiday while using the titular competition as the backdrop for a relatively simple story about a mother and daughter bonding experience. Writer and freshman director Channing Godfrey Peoples, who grew up celebrating Juneteenth, tells a tender and touching tale about the parent-child relationship and offers a fine examination of black American life. Even if the overall story feels a little too familiar at its core, there’s a lot to appreciate in this understated gem.
“Miss Juneteenth” stars the immensely talented Nicole Beharie as Turquoise, a former Miss Juneteenth winner and single mother who enters her daughter Kai, played by Alexis Chikaeze, in the pageant which, if she won, would provide Kai with a scholarship and easy access to the colleges of her choosing. Beharie, whose last notable film role was in “42” and has since struggled finding work due to her departure from the show “Sleepy Hollow” leading the industry to label her a “problematic”, absolutely shines in the lead role as a strong willed mother working multiple jobs, trying to shape her daughter into a good person and maintaining an on-off relationship with Kai’s father Ronnie, played by Kendrick Sampson. On the surface Turquoise is a typical parent figure who could have been more than she is today, especially as a prestigious Miss Juneteenth winner, and wants to see her daughter succeed and attempts to mold Kai into the woman she could never be. Beharie expertly rides the line between a stern mother to an understanding friend to her on-screen daughter while embodying both the struggling black woman and the struggling single mom simultaneously. Beharie proves her doubters wrong in a big way and while there are many good performances in this movie her’s is one that feels unforgettable.
Looking at the bigger picture “Miss Juneteenth” could have easily been a run-of-the-mill drama but the sincerity injected into the film thanks to the performers and Channing Godfrey Peoples’s patient direction and smooth script help elevate it above many features of its kind. “Miss Juneteenth” really is a pretty simple story about a mother and daughter bonding in a very familiar set up and that serves as the main focus of the film from start to finish. Yet it still refuses to forget the importance of its chosen holiday setting or the struggles of African Americans in the United States as a whole. These themes don’t overshadow the central narrative. Instead they compliment it serving to establish the society these characters live in as well as their personal struggles without beating viewers over the head with social subtext. It’s cool to see a movie focusing on American black culture without drawing so much attention to it that it feels overstated. The film should be complimented for how well is showcases numerous relevant themes while never forgetting its true focus. In that sense it’s a relatable story for anyone but just so happens to involve black Americans and a holiday they hold dear to their hearts giving it added significance depending on the viewer which I think is pretty neat.
Probably the only “problem” I had with “Miss Juneteenth” is that it really does feel like a standard parent and child drama on the surface. It’s when you dig deeper that it becomes so much more. In a lot of ways it’s much better than its predecessors but it still leans very heavily on the same old tropes and clichés that these kinds of films feel required to include. Thankfully I can stand here and say that regardless of the familiar path it chooses to follow there much more good than bad. It’s true that “Miss Juneteenth” is rather predictable, but like I’ve always said, the merit of a movie’s use of clichés is more in the execution and its ability to feel like its own thing. “Miss Juneteeth” might tackle familiar ground in its story and parent-child dynamic, but it does feel fresh and much more insightful and significant than many of its predecessors and contemporaries without ever trying to be much more than it needs or wants to be.
“Miss Juneteenth” is a great film telling a story layered with emotional depth, complimented by great performances and supported by a committed writer and director all while embracing its opportunity to tackle some relevant and timely examinations of black culture and draw attention to the Juneteenth holiday. Frankly this movie does a lot with a pretty basic idea and yet never feels overbearing. It’s so many things wrapped in a nice, simple package and rarely takes the easy way out even with its most obvious ideas. While I can’t help but acknowledge that there is a lot in this film that we’ve seen so many times before I also have to give it credit as an undeniable standout within its subgenre. At the end of the day “Miss Juneteenth” does more than enough to earn the crown in my book.