Miss Juneteenth movie review: ordinary lives drawn with extraordinary grace

part of my Directed by Women series
MaryAnn’s quick take: A beautiful cinematic experience, delicately subtle and bursting with a gorgeous sense of place and character. There is wonderful intimate suspense in every moment of Nicole Beharie’s performance.
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for movies by and about women
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
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So Donald Trump, President of (I still can’t believe this is reality) the United States, is holding a rally this weekend seemingly specifically designed to desecrate the commemoration known as Juneteenth. The only good thing about this specific horror of our ongoing national nightmare is that it might introduce some Americans who don’t know about Juneteenth to the concept.

Juneteenth honors the end of slavery in the United States, when the Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 declaration that slaves were freed, was finally read out two years later in Texas, the last Confederate holdout, on June 19th, 1865. Some consider it a second Independence Day, which is absolutely right, and many are working to get the day — recognized in most states, though often only in halfhearted ways — declared a federal holiday. Which would be an even better way to introduce some Americans to the concept. (At the moment, observances seem to be limited to Black communities, which should embarrass non-Black Americans. We should all be celebrating… and then acknowledging that the work of Emancipation is far from being done.) (ETA 06.17.21: President Joe Biden today signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, establishing June 19th as a federal holiday.)

Miss Juneteenth Alexis Chikaeze
TFW when you are only there because Mom made you come…

In the meantime, one way to send a fuck-you to racist piece-of-shit Donald Trump and his racist piece-of-shit supporters would be to make the lovely new drama Miss Juneteenth as big a hit as possible on all the on-demand services this weekend. This should not be seen as a chore performed out of a sense of SJW duty — still, if I can guilt you into paying a few bucks to support a Black woman filmmaker telling a Black woman’s story, I’m okay with that too. But writer-director Channing Godfrey Peoples’s feature debut is a beautiful cinematic experience, bursting with a gorgeous sense of place and character the likes of which are rarer onscreen than they should be. (Miss Juneteenth is set in and was produced in Peoples’s hometown of Fort Worth, Texas; it won the Louis Black “Lone Star” Award, for best film shot in Texas or made by a Texan, at this year’s virtual SXSW festival.)

Nicole Beharie (Shame, American Violet) brings a strength and a weariness to Turquoise Jones, a former beauty queen and single mom trying to make a better life for her teen daughter, Kai (newcomer Alexis Chikaeze). Her strength is that of a woman with limited opportunities who knows the deck is stacked against her but who is determined to push through; her weariness is, frankly, of the same root. Beharie often signals the impossible conundrum her character is in via a moment of wretched quiet that goes on for just a tad longer than you might expect, after which she might bust into a grin or collapse into despair; there is wonderful intimate suspense in Beharie’s performance in every moment of this film.

Miss Juneteenth Nicole Beharie Kendrick Sampson
TFW when men are such a major pain in your ass but also very cute.

Turq is also exhausted by the demands and expectations of men, who fail to help in myriad ways even when they think they are, in fact, helping. There is her not-quite-estranged husband, Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson), who never seems to have money to help support their daughter, but who keeps turning up with new toys for himself or with unexpected financial demands that he has no shame in asking Turq to bail him out of. There is Bacon (Akron Watson), the successful businessman — he runs the local mortuary, which, as he notes, will always be an essential service with solid demand — who would very much like to have Turq as a partner in work (she’s a part-time cosmetologist for the recently deceased, just one of her jobs) as well as in life… though clearly his attentions are, well, not necessarily unwelcome, but just too much additional work that she cannot cope with right now.

Meanwhile, Turquoise is struggling to come up with the money to get Kai into this year’s Miss Juneteenth beauty pageant — which Turq is herself a former winner of; these are real pageants across the South — for the opportunities it represents: more rarefied society than working-class Turq can offer, a full university scholarship, and a stamp of cultural approval that Kai might be unable to obtain in other ways. Kai doesn’t seem wholly enthusiastic about the pageant, though…

All Americans — Black and white — need to see more movies like Miss Juneteenth.

Peoples wrestles here with a lot of complex American issues: Turq’s problems arise not only from the color of her skin but from poverty and long-term family issues — though those are also made worse by the color of her skin. There is a delicate subtlety to how Peoples handles matters that are hardly unfamiliar in this sort of drama, much that she lets go by unspoken but which speak volumes anyway. Though no one says it, we guess that Turq was barely older than Kai is now — the kid turns 15 over the course of the film, and Turq is hardly past 30 — when she had her daughter, and that Mom is desperate to keep Kai from detouring her own life into too-early motherhood. But is Turquoise pouring too much of her own detoured dreams into her child? Perhaps it’s true that all parents live vicariously through their children, but how to find that balance between letting a child find her own path and pushing a kid too much onto the path you imagined for yourself? It’s a moment of gentle triumph when Turquoise hits on that balance.

Miss Juneteenth
TFW you are a feminist opposed to beauty pageants but also a feminist who recognizes that they offer important opportunities to young women that they otherwise wouldn’t have…

Perhaps most important of all is that Miss Juneteenth is about the vibrant, lively Black community around Turquoise, full of human lives of joy and pain and tribulation in which racism is not at all ignorable — “ain’t no American dream for Black folks,” someone says here — but isn’t the totality through which their lives are defined. We don’t see anywhere near enough movies about Black Americans that aren’t about extreme trauma and outrageous abuse, just the everyday battle to pay the bills and raise the kids right. It shouldn’t be the case, but White Americans need to see more movies like this one. I shouldn’t need to say it, but Black Americans are just regular people. I hate that that sounds condescending, and I don’t mean it that way: I mean only that filmdom hasn’t accorded that mundane humanity to Black Americans anywhere near often enough. The mundanity of Miss Juneteenth is its graceful strength.

Miss Juneteenth is the Alliance of Women Film Journalists’ Movie of the Week for June 19th. Read the comments from AWFJ members — including me — on why the film deserves this honor.

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