Miss Juneteenth (4 stars)

Miss Juneteenth

Nicole Beharie shines in this sincere drama from debut director Channing Godfrey Peoples

'Ain't no American dream for black folks,' observes the boss of a former beauty queen, as he poo-poos her ambitions for the bar she runs for him. Made with notable sincerity, Miss Juneteenth is about refusing to surrender your desire for a different life, even when the challenges seem insurmountable.

Beauty contests have tended to attract mockery onscreen – from Miss Congeniality to Drop Dead Gorgeous and Little Miss Sunshine. Debut director Channing Godfrey Peoples was raised attending Miss Juneteenth pageants, which celebrate the US holiday marking the emancipation of slaves, and, accordingly, she takes a different tack. With present-day injustice and historical pain as a backdrop, the context carries real weight, despite a fairly predictable plot.

There's huge dignity in hardworking Texan protagonist Turquoise Jones (delicate work from Nicole Beharie, best known for her work in Shame and TV's Sleepy Hollow), still a picture of glamour even as she's cleaning out the bogs. Hoping to propel her teenage daughter out of their small town on a trajectory that was once hers, Turquoise's intentions are honourable when she enters Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) in a pageant which she takes desperately seriously, and which offers an educational scholarship to the winner. Meanwhile, Turquoise's unreliable ex Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson) drifts back on the scene, claiming to have mended his ways.

More interested in being someone's saviour than being saved (a rival admirer offers her financial security while, by contrast, she has to bail Ronnie out of jail), Turquoise is the kind of headstrong woman who is as exasperating as she is appealing. She steamrollers over her daughter's own wishes, blinded by her need to relive a highlight of her life and to graft a happy ending over her own disappointment. Yet she's never unsympathetic in a film that holds such women up as everyday heroes, keeping roofs over their children's heads at great personal cost. Beharie beautifully captures the toll of daily drudgery, and Turquoise's burning urge to simply do better.

Available to watch in cinemas and on demand from Fri 25 Sep.

Miss Juneteenth

  • 4 stars
  • 2020
  • US
  • 1h 39min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Channing Godfrey Peoples
  • Cast: Nicole Beharie, Kendrick Sampson, Alexis Chikaeze

A former beauty queen prepares her rebellious teenage daughter for the Miss Juneteenth pageant.