Channing Godfrey Peoples’s film, “Miss Juneteenth,” has taken 2020 by storm. Originally premiering at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, it has since skyrocketed to the top of many best-of lists for this year and has become a hit at several other film festivals as well. Not to mention, it’s become a hot topic for 2021 awards season discussions — not only for Peoples’s direction, but for the film’s spectacular leading performances from Nicole Beharie and Alexis Chikaeze. I couldn’t wait to finally see it for myself, and I’m so happy to report that this film deserves all of the positive reactions it’s currently receiving and more. “Miss Juneteenth” is a wonderful feature film debut from Peoples, led with an abundance of heart and passion from both Beharie and Chikaeze.
The story centers around a former beauty queen named Turquoise Jones (Beharie) and her young daughter, Kai (Chikaeze). Turquoise excitedly hopes for Kai to follow in her footsteps by competing in the Miss Juneteenth pageant — named in honor of the day when slaves in Galveston, Texas, were told they were free, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued — but Kai doesn’t feel the same way about the pageant as her mother. Unfortunately for Turquoise, Kai just doesn’t share her same dream. She longs to join a local dance team instead, a decision that causes friction between the mother-daughter duo as they navigate their respective wishes and dreams.
For Turquoise, she just wants her daughter to live the best life that she possibly can. And in her mind, the direct path to this end goal is the pageant. Beharie captures this sincerity in Turquoise perfectly, bringing her to life in a very warm and heartfelt way. It’s a performance that’s nuanced in spectacular little ways, and her connection with Chikaeze’s Kai feels realistic and genuine.
A lot of this is also thanks to Peoples’s direction. She lets her leads run wild with these characters, allowing their complexities to really shine through. As a viewer, you’re immediately invested in Turquoise and Kai’s life, and you want the best for both of them as well. There are so many layers present throughout the story that Peoples immediately pulls you into, right from the get-go. Not only do you get a good idea of what Turquoise and her life is like, but you understand Kai’s perspective and what she wants as well. Even the supporting cast adds an abundance of life to the story, investing you deeper into it and the lives of these lovely women at its center.
Even though the story’s pacing is occasionally slower than expected, with the script never diving too deep below the surface of these interesting characters, Beharie and Chikaeze’s performances manage to reel you back in when things start to lull. There’s also Daniel Patterson’s lively and vibrant cinematography, which breathes wondrous life into “Miss Juneteenth” as well. All of these elements come together to really make “Miss Juneteenth” shine.
However, it’s the mother-daughter story at its core that stands out the most. It unfolds naturally, with the growth that both Turquoise and Kai experience happening similarly. It’s an evolving relationship that’s truly wonderful, as a viewer, to watch play out. “Miss Juneteenth” is a lovely story that’s further elevated by these sincere performances at its center. Beharie’s performance, in particular, is one for the books. It easily stands out as one of the best of the year, and I hope awards season gifts her the crown she so deserves.
Featured image credit: Vertical Entertainment