Liberation can mean a lot of things in a lot of ways, both on personal and profound levels. Systemic “freedoms” have been afforded to Blacks sparsely and sparingly, in a cyclical manner of crumb-throwing — never all at once, and never in full. Juneteenth is the celebration of the 1865 emancipation of enslaved Black people in Texas, who were not informed of their freedom until two years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Channing Godfrey Peoples’ feature length debut, Miss Juneteenth, is a chronicle of a mother, Turquoise (Nicole Beharie), preparing her daughter, Kai (Alexis Chikaeze), for the annual Miss Juneteenth pageant, an event that “Turq” is much more invested in. Both of them are standing at the precipice of their own emotional freedom, with generational and cultural stressors — such as pressure to succumb to respectability politics, the unfortunate facility with which Black progress can be dismantled by institutional economic reliance, and the pretentious resentment of symbolic hierarchies within the Black community — serving as the final hurdles before they can freely fly over the edge.
Skimming the surface, the film is about a former pageant queen trying to coerce her daughter down the path of her own construction. However, Turq’s motivations are to provide her daughter with a better life than her own — by white-knuckling the blueprint of Kai winning the Miss Juneteenth pageant to “inevitably” set her on the path for success, Turq is actually clinging to a time in her life that appeared to be more hopeful than her present, using the event to push her daughter down posterity’s perspective of Black female success. However, Turq comes to realize that titles and accolades may not dictate much, but that the love and relationships we nurture may facilitate everything. Miss Juneteenth is a film that feels earnest from the very beginning, and with each passing minute, it only trenches itself deeper into reality with a voracious intensity that isn’t startling, but deeply comforting. It addresses the ease with which one can get wrapped up in expectation, and the battle between the legacies we claim v. the ones we inherit.
Nicole Beharie’s performance as Turq is this film’s absolute shining splendor. Executed with delicate distinction that leaves the viewer absolutely rapt, fully absorbed in her unequivocally riveting performance, she manifests the character of Turq into undeniably material existence. She is concerned, conflicted, yet filled to the brim with unconditional love as she navigates the complexities of ownership over her own existence and the perpetual dissension between posterity and individuality. Alexis Chikaeze as Kai is a perfect complement: her performance is independently opulent in its sentiment, not falling into any pre-existing archetypes of the “rebellious, bratty teen.” These two performances exist in beguiling harmony, exhibiting the beauty, complexity, and frustration — yet never halting the constant undercurrent of unbridled love — that exists in a mother-daughter relationship. Every single character in Miss Juneteenth, including Kendrick Sampson as Ronnie, and characters we only see in fleeting fashion, like Betty Rae (Liz Mikel), feel fleshed to complete fruition, a major credit to the film’s wonderfully comprehensive writing by Peoples herself.
Daniel Patterson’s cinematography, swathed in peach and yellow hues, is delectably warm, swaddling you in its repose — filling you with the same summertime aura in which the film takes place. There’s a subtle inclusion of a recurring red, white, and blue color motif, incorporating Texan culture and American identity at large. As the film follows the lives of this Black community, during the context of Juneteenth, I’d be remiss not to acknowledge that this color palette mirrors the integral nature of the film, which is as deeply rooted in American soil as the Black culture that breathes above it. The attentive consideration with which independent shots of the film’s characters are captured is notable — each of them feels like portraiture of the highest artistry, with tangibility and detail so striking that it feels as if these people are standing right before you. These enthralling shots serve as powerful displays of utmost humanity — the faces becoming individual stanzas within the film’s overarching lyrical poetry.
Seamlessly riding and gliding through Miss Juneteenth is a soulful score and soundtrack that imbues you with soothing satisfaction: the kind that reverberates so profoundly from within your spirit that you can feel it in your flesh. Peoples perfectly captures the energy of Black culture, community, and love; it effortlessly pours through the film’s utter presence, respirating a comforting air through the world in which the narrative exists, and making you feel like you’re breathing it too. In all its care, honesty, and humor, Miss Juneteenth is a film that feels like love — a film that feels like home.
Miss Juneteenth recognizes the faces we put on, the pressures to mold mass-produced masks of expectation, and the absolute catharsis we feel once we peel them off and fling them to the wind. Though the film’s characters are not left without struggle, founded on the staunch support of one another, they’ve overcome a chapter of their own personal strife to find hope and respite in the credence they’ve built for themselves moving forward. Beautifully intimate, empathetic, and utterly exalting, Miss Juneteenth is an impassioned tribute to strength, resilience, community, and liberation — an acknowledgment that in all its emotional glory and gore, the life of Black womanhood is an effervescently special existence to lead.