' ' Cinema Romantico: Miss Juneteenth

Monday, May 17, 2021

Miss Juneteenth

As “Miss Juneteenth” opens, Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie) is scrubbing the bathroom of the barbecue joint where she works. A co-worker enters and marvels: “I will never get over seeing Miss Juneteenth cleaning toilets for a living.” If the line seems an on the nose conveyance of backstory, that Turquoise once won a prestigious Miss Juneteenth pageant and now has been reduced to this, by the third or fourth time someone makes a variation of the same jokey observation, it feels less on the nose than right on. This, you realize, is how Turquoise is seen, in that small town way where you are less a sum of everything than merely razzed about your greatest failure or singular accomplishment, especially if it ended in failure too. Juneteenth, as a pageant coordinator in the movie reminds its contestants, is a celebration of when America’s slaves were truly, literally, finally emancipated, and director Channing Godfrey Peoples innately ties these two ideas together, that overdue emancipation and Turquoise seeking liberation from that Miss Juneteenth label and how it signifies the foundering of her existence.

What went wrong after winning the Miss Juneteenth crown is not immediately clear and, even then, not subject to some expository flashback, just scattered details. The emergent irony, then, is that even as Turquoise works two jobs to try and give her teenage daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) the life she deserves, she insists Kai enter the Miss Juneteenth pageant too. This is not only forces Kai to defer her own dream of trying out for the dance team, it is as if Turquoise thinks her daughter can somehow avoid where she went wrong, or perhaps right where she went wrong. If it’s familiar, that’s the point, an eternal loop of irrationality, where even as Turquoise takes guff from her mother (Lori Hayes) for failing to be a good Christian woman, she turns right around and gives similar guff to her own daughter for not dating The Right Guy. 

That irony trickles down to Turquoise’s own love life. Though the owner, Bacon (Akron Watson), of the mortuary where she works makes his feelings known for her, she continues seeing Kai’s father, Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson), even though they are officially separated. Intelligently, Godfrey Peoples keeps the dichotomy smaller between the two men than you might expect. Though Bacon cares for Turquoise, he is also aloof, as if he’s keeping a wall up even as he tries reaching her, while Ronnie is not a bad man, just endearingly in over his head. Even his crucial moment of unreliability, failing to purchase Kai’s pageant dress, comes across more than mere forgetfulness when he admits to using the money for a down payment on a car repair business. It paints dreams as something tangible rather than ephemeral, which echoes the advice given to Turquoise by Wayman (Marcus Mauldin), her boss at the BBQ joint, even as “Miss Juneteenth” never denies Ronnie’s fatherly failure. 

By far, though, “Miss Juneteenth’s” most complex relationship is between mother and daughter. Despite being at loggerheads over the pageant, Godfrey Peoples allows for myriad little moments of happiness too, shared laughter and a birthday cake for Kai illuminating a house otherwise darkened by an unpaid electricity bill, a visual defining the precarious edge on which the whole movie seems to rest. This paints them as more than mere antagonists and underlines why Turquoise is so insistent and why Kai is so willing to go along despite misgivings. As Kai, Chikaeze gives a tremendous performance that is almost entirely non-verbal, so much dismissive side-eye and head-down, eyes-up aggravation. Though there is a low-key comic moment in which Turquoise picks up her daughter in a funeral hearse, borrowed from Bacon when her car breaks down, but you don’t need this moment to understand Kai’s perpetual teenage embarrassment, Chikaeze existing in that familiar youthful agony of always wanting to be invisible in her mother’s company. And Beharie alternates between being severity and vulnerability, staring down her daughter’s boyfriend like she stares down some unruly customers, but in a single flourish cracking that hardened exterior open, trying to hold a whole world together that feels patched out of spare parts. 

“Miss Juneteenth” culminates with the pageant where Kai honors her mother’s wish to recite Maya Angelou’s Phenomenal Woman by making her own, recasting it as a rap and a hip-hop dance. As she performs, Godfrey Peoples keeps the moment intimate, cutting between Kai onstage and shots of Turquoise watching, like mom is realizing this performance is meant for her more than the judges, a daughter telling her mom she is a woman. Phenomenally. And that is why when the pageant winner is announced, Godfrey Peoples recounts the moment not in a close-up of Kai but a close-up of Turquoise, like it breaks the spell, like she is letting go and shedding all that baggage at once. The former Miss Juneteenth has finally been set free.

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