Nicole Beharie's Magnetism Carries 'Miss Juneteenth'

January 27 2020

The past haunts many of us. Roads we could've taken regularly play over in our minds, suggesting what might've been. From the outside looking in, this doesn't appear to be the case for Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie); She has moved on from the events of yesterday.

She's a waitress at Wayman's BBQ & Lounge, a fiercely protective mother to her precocious 15-year-old daughter, Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) and a beloved member of her Black Ft. Worth, Texas community. Turquoise puts all her energy into giving Kai the opportunities she never had. Yet, the heartbreaking thing about director Channing Godfrey Peoples' debut feature is that all of the ambitions Turquoise desperately has for Kai were once within her own grasp. 

As Miss Juneteenth opens, Turquoise stands in the mirror with a glistening crown atop her fluffy curls, with the Black national anthem "Lift Every Voice and Sing" booming in the background. Turq has a radiance and youthfulness about her, despite the weariness that comes with working yourself to the bone and raising a strong-willed teenage daughter. She is reminiscing on the beauty queen title she held fifteen years prior. Back in 2004, Turq won the Miss Juneteenth pageant, which commiserates the day slavery was abolished in Texas. Her title earned her a scholarship to a Historically Black College or University of her choosing.

Yet, life has a way of putting your mind at war with your heart. For Turquoise, it's a battle she's been fighting with Kai's father, her estranged husband Ronnie (Insecure's Kendrick Sampson), for over 15 years. Despite his past and present choices, Turquoise is still smitten by the immature but charismatic mechanic. All of these years later, she still desperately wants Ronnie to live up to all of his promises. 

Miss Juneteenth is a breathtaking canvas for Beharie's emotional range, deliberate choices and profound warmth as an actress. It begins slow, with Peoples meticulously fleshing out Turquoise's world. The chemistry between mother and daughter even elevates the sometimes choppy narrative. Beharie has a way of channeling both friendship and an authoritative tone in the same breath or with one look. Though Turquoise recognizes that Kai has different aspirations than she once did, she is incapable of fully accepting this. Kai's desires are mainly to join a dance team, attend the big state school and slay in Battle of the Bands. However, Turq's desperate desire for her daughter to achieve what she never did overwhelms her. 

Through Turquoise and Kai, Peoples invites her audience into her hometown--a debt-riddled, but warm place, full of brown faces, dizzying heat, Black cowboys and garbage barrel barbecue pits. Ft. Worth is one of those Southern towns where the present meets the past. Turquoise leans into the respectability politics of the Miss Juneteenth pageant, where cutlery lessons are paramount and "dressing like a lady" is still a thing. However, she's a wholly modern woman, often donned in short-shorts, who fiercely defends her life's choices, especially when it comes to the lingering rumors of how she made ends meet when Kai was small. 

Though the acting performances are captivating, the film is not without fault. The first hour of the film is a leisurely look into Turquoise's constant money troubles and her obsession with the pageant, which at times feels too long. The movie could have benefited from a much tighter edit, and a bit of narrative restructuring, perhaps revealing some of Turquoise's childhood circumstances earlier. This would have helped to subvert the predictability of the plot.  

However, despite its earlier stumbles, sticking with Miss Juneteenth is beyond rewarding. In addition to Beharie's absolute magnetism, what is unveiled is a stunning mother/daughter tapestry about the sacrifices of motherhood and why dreams, no matter how they shift and evolve, never truly die. 

Miss Juneteenth premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 24, 2020.

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Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic, consultant and entertainment editor. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide

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