In “Miss Juneteenth,” the charming feature directing debut of Channing Godfrey Peoples, giving voice to black girls is a priority, not an option.
Available on demand, the film follows Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie, playing her part to perfection), a single mother in Fort Worth who wants her 15-year-old daughter, Kai (Alexis Chikaeze), to win the Miss Juneteenth pageant, an annual competition that awards the winner a scholarship to a historically black college or university of her choice. Turquoise — who won the title in 2004 — is convinced that Kai will take better advantage of the opportunity and secure a brighter future. But Kai has other aspirations and desires: She wants to try out for the school dance team, hang out with her crush and live a life generally unencumbered by her mother’s puritanical rule.
The road to the pageant is a challenging and expensive one. Turquoise, who works two jobs to make ends meet, struggles to just keep up with her bills, let alone the costs associated with the pageant — from the registration fee to Kai’s dress. She tries to lean on Kai’s father (Kendrick Sampson) for support, but he consistently shows himself to be unreliable and a source of added stress in her life.
The movie tackles multitudinous themes in its roughly 100 minutes, from the significance of Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of slavery in the United States, to the legacy of racism in predatory bank lending practices. But what’s most impressive is the amount of space Peoples’s black female characters inhabit in the narrative.
Instead of just depicting the myriad ways black women carry their communities, the movie goes further to explore how these women and black girls support each other in a world that often fails them. Even during their tensest moments, Turquoise and Kai share kisses and knowing smiles, or play fight and cuddle, repeatedly underscoring the tenderness in their relationship.
The movie also takes time to consider what it means to come of age as a black girl. Its best moments are the ones focused on Kai — when she is hanging out with her mother, teaching her father a viral dance or practicing her own moves in front of the mirror. They show that Kai’s present is just as worthy of a cause to fight for as her future.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 43 minutes. Rent or buy on Google Play and other streaming platforms and pay TV operators.