Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Director Channing Godfrey Peoples’ MISS JUNETEENTH is like a blast of refreshing cool air on a hot day. This story, centered on a former beauty queen who enters her teen daughter in the same pageant she competed in years prior, is a deeply-felt, poignant portrait of a woman realizing that her ideal life isn’t too far away from her real one. With a captivating performance from a skilled leading lady, and stunning beauty within the delicate facets of its story and settings, MISS JUNETEENTH deserves the crown. It’s an absolute treasure.
Back in 2004, Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie, who turns in an award-worthy performance) was crowned Miss Juneteenth in a pageant that was supposed to set her dreams into motion. However, those dreams were deferred in favor of motherhood and marriage. Now her once-sparkly major accomplishment is hidden away in a hat box – the crown a reminder of the glory days. Her formerly fluffy, sunshine yellow gown (symbolic of her bright, hope-filled future) now lies squashed and wrinkled in the back of her closet. Reality hits hard when the former beauty queen is tasked to scrub toilets at her waitressing job at the local barbeque restaurant. Reminders of her youthful exuberance and subsequent struggle to survive don’t aid matters. Her previous hopes for prosperity have transferred to the shoulders of her 14-year-old daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze), who’s reticent to take part in the same competition – which her mom is pushing on her. She’d rather join her school’s dance squad to land a college scholarship instead.
While Turquoise’s bosses value her work, her familial support system isn’t much help. Her car mechanic husband, Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson), with whom she’s separated, isn’t reliable. He’s a nuisance, either slacking off or getting into trouble because he’s been goofing off. Yet she feels compelled to consider getting back together with him to attain a cookie-cutter image. Kai continues to place him on a pedestal, most evident when she chooses to sport the necklace he gives her over the one her mom sacrificed to buy for her. Turquoise’s mother Charlotte (Lori Hayes) doesn’t contribute much to the equation except adding stress, scorn and judgement, hiding her alcoholism behind religious zealotry.
As obstacles mount for our protagonist – from the financial strain of affording her daughter’s pageant fees to figuring out her complicated love life – it’s empowering to see Turquoise use her ingenuity and intelligence to problem-solve and listen to what these situations are teaching her on this journey towards self-acceptance. Wonderfully, there are no villains, at least not in the traditional sense. All the characters are dynamically fleshed-out, flaws and all. If anything, society and its prescribed notions of perfection function as the antagonists. Peoples’ subtleties in the script serve to dismantle the priorities Turquoise has bought into. Conflict is brilliantly kept internal, driving the dramatic tension of the narrative. Turquoise’s conversation with her boss Wayman (Marcus M. Mauldin), about what the American Dream means to him as a Black business owner, is moving. It’s neither as precious nor perfunctory as this “come to Jesus talk” would be in lesser hands.
This is also a love letter to mothers and daughters. There’s a multitude of genuinely tender, touching moments threaded throughout, shared between Turquoise and Kai. Whether it be their bonding during hair straightening or celebrating in a stressful time, we see the nuanced, naturalistic aspects of their loving relationship – the give and take, the push and pull. The powerful climatic pageant performance of Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” is a moving testament to a mother’s legacy, taking the original emphatic celebration of womanhood, one Turquoise read to win her crown, and turning it into Kai’s own personal, thought-provoking statement.
There is, of course, a sweetness infused during the transitional montages, and also a breezy levity to the montage spotlighting other Miss Juneteenth competitors. This is where editor Courtney Ware cuts to a more comedic tone. But Peoples perfectly calibrates things back right after, returning to the heart of her picture. She, cinematographer Daniel Patterson, and production designer Olivia Peebles craft strikingly beautiful cinema out of a straight-forward narrative. The visuals of Turquoise’s world are raw, real and relatable. Similar to the chemistry conjured by the actors, these locations look lived in, providing an air of authenticity.
Hair and wardrobe also play integral roles in the narrative’s thematic motifs. The poster image, which occurs at the end of act two, is a perfect aesthetic summary of this film: Turquoise dressed in a plain red sundress, well-worn cowboy boots, and her off-kilter tiara. Kai’s pageant dress represents another thematic element (one I’ll refrain from spoiling). Her talent portion points not only to her finding her own freedom (creatively and whatnot), but also stands as a subversive commentary on modern-era commodification of the Black female body – letting her hair rest in its natural beauty, dressing in a conservative black top, and adding texture to Angelou’s prose through expressive dance movements.
Overall, MISS JUNETEENTH scores the highest marks, thanks to its heartening sentiment and plucky spirit. This film has gumption and feels validating to behold.
MISS JUNETEENTH is available on digital and on demand starting on June 19.