Painting a portrait of Black life in contemporary Texas, Channing Godfrey Peoples’ directorial debut “Miss Juneteenth” is a timely celebration of freedom and Black beauty.
On June 19, 1865, Union troops marched into Galveston, Texas to deliver the news to enslaved people that the Emancipation Proclamation legally freed them two and a half years prior. A beauty pageant called Miss Juneteenth was later created to celebrate the holiday.
The annual pageant is based in Fort Worth, where writer-director Peoples grew up. That pageant serves as the backdrop of the film, which follows single mother and former Miss Juneteenth winner Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie) as she navigates her unwilling daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) through the competition.
Both characters are searching for a kind of freedom: For Turquoise, it is freedom from hardships she has faced and from what her life could have been, which she hopes to achieve through her daughter. Strong-minded teenager Kai wants independence to make her own decisions and explore the woman she is becoming.
The raw performances of Beharie and Chikaeze carry the film, exploring the complex but loving relationship between a Black mother and daughter, and Peoples’ writing gives them the space to do so.
It is rare to see such an authentic story of Black life, particularly of Black women and girls. Peoples showcases characters who are familiar to her as a woman of color without catering to white audiences or explaining to them why the film is important.
Newcomer Alexis Chikaeze is subtly powerful in the role of Kai, taking over the screen with her hip-hop dance moves and her beautifully emotive facial expressions. Nicole Beharie is likewise quietly compelling as Turquoise, a role she captures perfectly.
Although Kai is reluctant to participate in the pageant, it ultimately serves as a channel for her self-discovery and acceptance. Right before returning to the stage for the second portion of the competition, Kai spritzes her previously flat-ironed pageant hair with water and emerges with her natural curls in their full-bodied glory, sending a powerful message to her mother and to viewers.
Even at an entirely Black beauty pageant like Miss Juneteenth, most contestants opt to straighten their hair, which can be partially attributed to historically white pageant culture, but also the criticism faced by Black girls even in their own communities for their natural hair. “Miss Juneteenth” serves to recognize all forms of Black beauty and empower young Black girls through Kai.
While the film may not be a technical or narrative cinematic masterpiece, that isn’t the point Peoples is trying to make. When broken down, the message is quite clear: Black women exist. Black women have hopes and dreams. Black women are beautiful, and that deserves to be celebrated.
“Miss Juneteenth” is an honest portrayal of community life and the relationship between two very real characters, and it is the film’s subtleties that make it rich. The barely-there score, the understated visuals, the drawn-out moments of heartbreak and betrayal, and the in-between moments that explain Juneteenth and proclaim the beauty of Black girls all come together to make an admirable directorial debut by Channing Peoples.