Producers: Neil Creque Williams, Jeanie Igoe, James M. Johnston, Toby Halbrooks, Theresa Steele Page and Tim Headington Director: Channing Godfrey Peoples Screenplay: Channing Godfrey Peoples Cast: Nicole Beharie, Kendrick Sampson, Alexis Chikaeze, Liz Mikel, Markus M. Mauldin, Lori Hayes, Akron Watson, Jaime Matthis, Lisha Hackney and Phyllis Cicero Distributor: Vertical Entertainment
The leading characters are skillfully drawn and well acted, and their environment beautifully realized, but the narrative arc of Channing Godfrey Peoples’ debut film is predictable, and the telling of it lacks urgency. Still, though it drags a bit, “Miss Juneteenth” proves a mostly ingratiating drama about a mother aching to relive her greatest triumph through her daughter.
She’s Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie), a hardworking single mom in a poor black suburb of Fort Worth. Her first job is at a BBQ joint that also serves as a bar, but she also has a part-time position at a funeral home. She’s raising fourteen-year old Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) on her own; Kai’s father Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson) is around, but he’s a mechanic who spends most of his money gambling. But he’s still a possessive guy, who romances Turquoise and intervenes angrily when she goes out with Bacon (Akron Watson), the straight-arrow owner of the funeral home who’s obviously infatuated with her.
The great moment in Turquoise’s life came fifteen years earlier, in 2004, when she participated in the Fort Worth Miss Juneteenth contest, a local pageant held every year to celebrate June 19, 1865, the day when word of the Emancipation Proclamation finally reached Texas, two years after it had been issued. She won—and still cherishes the ceremonial tiara she wore as the Juneteenth Queen, as well as memories (shown in flashback) of her ritual appearance in the town parade—but had to forego the college scholarship it brought when she got pregnant.
Now she’s determined that Kai will win the 2019 contest, which requires courses in old-style etiquette and manners, as well as some sort of musical or dramatic performance. The girl, of course, has other interests. She’s intent on securing a place on her school’s dance squad, and practices for it instead of seeing to the pageant requirements. She also wants to spend time with her boyfriend Quintavious (Jaime Mathis), but Turquoise, remembering her own history, tries to put an end to that—especially after Kai sneaks the boy into the house one night.
The interaction between mother and daughter is at the heart of “Miss Juneteenth,” and both actresses play it splendidly, with an extra-small party for Kai’s fifteenth birthday a highlight. And the secondary characters are, for the most part, an interesting bunch, vividly acted even when sketchily written. That’s true not only of Sampson’s Ronnie, Watson’s Bacon and Matthis’ Quintavious, but of Betty Ray (Liz Mikel), Turquoise’s co-worker at the BBQ place, and Wayman (Markus M. Mauldin), its grumpily avuncular owner (even if a brief subplot involving his health is extraneous).
The most important ancillary figure, however, is Turquoise’s mother Charlotte (Lori Hayes), a reformed alcoholic turned censorious church lady. Though the character isn’t as fully developed as she might have been, her presence adds depth to Turquoise’s situation, encouraging us to imagine what Turquoise’s childhood must have been like and infer the reasons behind her unremitting drive.
On the other hand, the material related to the contest itself, and the women running it (Lisha Hackney and Phyllis Cicero) does tend to run on; a mite less talk about salad forks and table manners would have sufficed, and when a visit to an exhibit about Juneteenth suddenly turns into a short speech about its origin, you sense a didacticism the picture ordinarily avoids. While the narrative arc naturally leads to the pageant itself, moreover, when it finally arrives the effect is less emotionally wrenching than you might expect.
Throughout, however, the film creates a sense of place that is utterly convincing, with Olivia Peebles’ production design and Rachel Dainer-Best’s costumes spot-on. At times one might wish that Daniel Patterson’s cinematography would exhibit a bit more verve, but its simplicity reflects the overall approach of Peoples and her editor Courtney Ware, who opt for a leisurely, meandering tone that is just a little tepid. The background score by Emily Rice adds to the local ambience.
Juneteenth, 2020, will be a good deal different from the 2019 event portrayed here, which was crowded and communal; perhaps Peoples’ film can serve to bring folks together in a different way to recall the joyful liberation of 1865 that has become a national form of remembrance. But in spite of some weaknesses it’s a good enough film in its own right to transcend any merely ceremonial function.