A unique and authentic film that captures African American life in deep in heart of Fort Worth, Texas, Channing Godfrey People’s Miss Juneteenth is a warm and wise picture that traces a fractured mother-daughter relationship against the backdrop of an annual pageant. The film veers into familiar material as a mother, Turnouise Jones (Nicole Beharie), presses her 15-year old daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) to follow in her footsteps and compete for a scholarship that will enable her to leave the small world she knows. It appears as if Kai has plans to do so, with or without Turnouise’s nudging as she shows little to no interest in the completion.

Miss Juneteenth covers this tried and true ground in with a fresh perspective as we follow Beharie’s Turnouise struggling to make ends meet. Her dreams were deferred when she gave birth to Kai, and is all but forced to give up the crown and scholarship that comes with it. Now a young mother herself, she’s gently taunted by a local bar owner that a former Miss Juneteenth now cleans his bathroom. Rudderless, she gravitates towards Kai’s father who is in a better position than he had been previously and aspires to do the right thing by giving her the $400 registration fee for the pageant. That unfortunately doesn’t cover the dress and other aspects of the competition.

Turnouise, however, is a woman of many talents. A hardworking single mother, she runs a bar and also, on the side, does make-up for a local mortician who has caught her eye despite the fact he can’t afford to bring her on as a full-time employee. He does have a goal of expanding his business and the film briefly explores the tensions between gentrification and questioning who holds the actual power in these communities: the African American small business owners or their white creditors.

Playing familiar melodramatic chords in a new and interesting way, the film contains engaging and heartbreaking performances as its characters come to terms with their roles within the community. Kai is a free spirit uninterested in tradition while her mother is beholden to the chance that she never got–a full year as Miss Juneteenth, a title celebrating the delayed independence of Texas’ slave population. Kai continues the on-boarding and rehearsal process although she remains more interested in other after-school activities rather than achieving a ceremonial place in the community.

Miss Juneteenth often feels fresh and alive, documenting the solemn seen patterns of African American life in Texas, particularly within regions of growth where a way of life may be at risk. The film takes at times too leisurely a tone, bouncing between Turquoise’s relationships in town and Kai’s relationships at school. It lacks the laser-like plot focus of the films of John Sayles, although it’s quite easy to compare the rhythms of small-town life used by Channing Godfrey Peoples with that of indie film mavericks that have covered similar ground. Fresh in many passages, the drama offers a few twists on a fragmented mother-daughter relationship. If anything, the film announces the arrival of an indie filmmaker to watch for in the coming years. 

Miss Juneteenth premiered at Sundance Film Festival.

See more Sundance coverage here.

Grade: B

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