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"MISS JUNETEENTH"
(2020) (Nicole Beharie, Alexis Chikaeze) (Not Rated)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A hard-working but poor mother prepares her daughter for the same college scholarship winning pageant that she won years earlier.
PLOT:

Back in 2004, Turquoise Jones (NICOLE BEHARIE) won the Miss Juneteenth Pageant in Fort Worth, Texas, but her promising future ended up derailed when she got pregnant by Ronnie (KENDRICK SAMPSON). They're still married but living apart, and their nearly 15-year-old daughter, Kai (ALEXIS CHIKAEZE), lives with Turquoise who works as a waitress at a barbeque joint run by Wayman (MARCUS M. MAULDIN) and Betty Ray (LIZ MIKEL) and does makeup work at the local funeral home run by Bacon (AKRON WATSON).

Fully aware of her contentious relationship with her own ultra-religious and alcoholic mother, Charlotte (LORI HAYES), Turquoise wants a better bond between her and Kai as well as a better future for her daughter. Accordingly, and with the Miss Juneteenth Pageant offering a full scholarship to any black college, she's pushing her girl to enter and win, and is trying to earn enough money to pay for Kai's dress and entry fee, what with Ronnie not being a reliable source of financial support.

But the teen is more interested in pursuing her passion for dance when not hanging out with fellow teen Quantavious (JAIME MATTHIS) who Turquoise sees as nothing but potential trouble. With the pageant quickly approaching, Turquoise tries to keep it together and hopes her daughter might win and thus avoid repeating the mistakes she made.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10

While I'm not sure the dates would match up correctly, I can almost imagine a world in which young Turquoise Jones likely heard Bruce Springsteen's song "Glory Days" back when she was a kid.

Of course, she would have been unaware at the time that her future self might hear the lyrics quite differently upon reflecting back on her own life and what was and could have been as a promising young girl of color who never lived up to expectations thrust upon her after winning a beauty pageant in her teens.

That's what I thought about while watching "Miss Juneteenth," a winning drama featuring an Oscar nomination worthy performance by Nicole Beharie as that present-day woman who, as a teen, won that titular pageant.

For those not familiar with the unofficial holiday -- which has received increased attention of recent with President Trump initially scheduling and then rescheduling a political rally on that date in a city where a horrible, racially motivated mass killing of black folks occurred nearly a century ago -- Juneteenth is the anniversary date (June 19) of when Texas finally announced -- two and half years after the Emancipation Proclamation had already made it official -- that enslaved residents were officially free.

Like many girls in her situational circumstances, Turquoise's freedom and future success was derailed when she ended up pregnant, and unlike many of her fellow winners before and since her victory, she resultantly didn't go on to big and better or at least notable things.

Considering her rocky relationship with her own mother (Lori Hayes) that she partly blames for the path to where she now exists, Turquoise wants to avoid the same fate for her nearly fifteen-year-old daughter, Kai (Alexis Chikaeze). And she believes that entering her into the same contest she won more than a decade ago might be the golden ticket to ensure that (what with a victory resulting in a full-ride scholarship to a black college of her choice).

The only problem is that young Kai is more interested in boys (notably one slightly older one played by Jamie Matthis) and pursuing her passion for dance than competing in what appears to be a stuffy, old-fashioned pageant that leaves her bored and unengaged. Essentially being a single mom -- the dad played by Kendrick Sampson is still in the picture, but lives elsewhere and isn't reliable -- Turquoise simply isn't going to accept that from her daughter and works several jobs not only to pay the rent and bills, but also pageant related expenses.

As written and directed by Channing Godfrey Peoples, the plot is fairly conventional and straightforward as our determined protagonist faces various obstacles and setbacks but stays determined in her quest to free her offspring from their situation. And thus, symbolically like escaping the confines of slavery, from the societal issues that have held down women of color like her for generations.

Beharie is nothing short of completely believable as the beleaguered but resilient mom, and her chemistry with Chikaeze feels spot on and authentic. Supporting performances by Sampson, Marcus M. Mauldin and Liz Mikel as the black owners of the barbeque joint where the protagonist works and Akron Watson as the local funeral home director who thinks Turquoise deserves better are all good, but this is really a mother-daughter story and the two actresses knock that out of the park.

A slice of life tale revolving around part of society that many are purposefully or coincidentally blind to, "Miss Juneteenth" is a winning drama about breaking the cycles that keep certain participants in society down, with hopeful new glory days just over the horizon. It's quite good and thus earns a 7 out of 10 rating.




Reviewed June 12, 2020 / Posted June 19, 2020


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