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Teenager Kai Jones just wants to dance—her mother has other ideas.
Writer and director Channing Godfrey Peoples’ Miss Juneteenth mines the eternally compelling nature of mother-daughter relationships, and here it’s imbued with Texas charm. It’s the story of Turquoise (Nicole Beharie) and her daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze), and their journey to better understanding each other. It’s also a story that is perfectly timed: a film that celebrates Blackness called Miss Juneteenth releasing on video on demand this Juneteenth, during a month when people have taken to the streets to protest anti-Black racism and support the Black Lives Matter movement.
Turquoise wants Kai to compete in and win the Miss Juneteenth scholarship pageant, just as she did in her youth. If she wins, she’ll get a full scholarship to the historically Black institution of her choice. Kai would rather focus on making the school dance team, and hanging out with a boy from school.
Mothers and daughters who don’t fully see each other feels like film territory that serves as its own genre now. It’s a testament to the strength of that territory that films continue to explore these relationships, and in Miss Juneteenth, it’s explored with warmth, sincerity, and heart—so much heart.
Turquoise works jobs at a barbecue restaurant and bar and a funeral home, striving to make ends meet and provide the funds for her daughter to compete in the Miss Juneteenth pageant. In her daily life, Turquoise deals with a distant, out of touch mother (Lori Hayes) who has struggled with alcohol addiction, and Kai’s father (Kendrick Sampson), who often fails to support them financially or emotionally.
People know Turquoise around town as the former Miss Juneteenth whose life went awry. That’s also how she knows herself, initially, always thinking of her former pageant queen glory.
Despite being accepted into the competition fold, Kai feels she doesn’t fit into the pageant scene. At one point, the girls are being tested in a lesson on tableware, and Kai is chastised for picking up a salad knife instead of a dinner knife.
The messages in Miss Juneteenth are deeply resonant, for this time or any time: It’s about self-acceptance, and not letting anyone mold you into who they want you to be. The film also takes moments to teach the important history of Juneteenth as a holiday commemorating Black freedom, and highlights the struggle Black people in America, like Turquoise and her daughter, continue to face. In one scene, Turquoise’s boss tells her, “Ain’t no American dream for Black folks. We got to hold on to what we got … And when you get you something worth holding onto, you make sure can’t nobody take it from you.”
The filmmaking centers the performances, particularly Beharie’s wistful Turquoise. Beharie is moving in the role, and she’s the beating heart of the film.
The best scenes are the ones in which Turquoise and Kai are just being mother and daughter. Turquoise wants the best for her daughter, but she doesn’t quite understand her yet. Instead, she wants to live vicariously through her. But she loves her, and that’s clear. And Kai knows her mother loves her, but she wants to live her own dreams, too.
There is so much love in Miss Juneteenth, and right now, for at least an hour and a half, that love could be the balm for many souls.
Miss Juneteenth is available Friday on VOD.