Indie drama Miss Juneteenth 'an engaging and uplifting portrait of modern womanhood'

Nicole Beharie as Turquoise Jones and Alexis Chikaeze as Kai in Miss Juneteenth
Damon Smith

MISS JUNETEENTH (15, 99 mins) Drama/Romance. Nicole Beharie, Alexis Chikaeze, Kendrick Sampson, Lori Hayes, Akron Watson, Marcus M Mauldin, Phyllis Cicero. Director: Channing Godfrey Peoples.

Rating: 8/10

A DOGGEDLY determined mother pins her dreams on her teenage daughter in writer-director Channing Godfrey Peoples' assured debut, which empowers nuanced female characters to find their voices and speak their truths.

Turbocharged by a powerhouse central performance from Nicole Beharie, Miss Juneteenth nimbly sidesteps some predictable plot choices to quietly and proudly preach the strength of African American women today.

Peoples' film wears a Texan heart on its sleeve as lead characters tumble repeatedly through the emotional wringer, emerging each time with fresh bruises and an unshakeable resolve to mould their destiny.

They dare to believe in something better than their current situation, in stark contrast to friends and neighbours who profess, "Ain't no American dream for black folks. We gotta hold onto what we got".

Terrific rapport between Beharie and luminous 18-year-old co-star Alexis Chikaeze, playing her on-screen daughter, energises delicately crafted scenes of solidarity that build to a satisfying crescendo, though not necessarily the one that Hollywood convention dictates.

In that respect, Peoples follows her embattled characters' example and makes the best, heartfelt choices with the options at her disposal.

Turquoise Jones (Beharie) was crowned Miss Juneteenth in 2004 under the watchful eye of pageant coordinator Mrs Washington (Phyllis Cicero). The annual beauty competition, which commemorates the date in 1865 when slaves discovered they were free following the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln, was supposed to be Turquoise's ticket to a brighter future.

Instead, she remained in her hometown of Fort Worth, Texas, and now works long hours at a BBQ pit and lounge owned by Wayman (Marcus M Mauldin).

Turquoise is determined to enter her 15-year-old daughter Kai (Chikaeze) into the pageant to secure a scholarship to a historically black institute.

"I'm gonna make sure she's something we ain't. She's my dream now," the proud mother tells her estranged mechanic husband, Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson).

However, a $400 competition registration fee, an $800 price tag on a custom-fitted pageant dress and an outstanding electricity bill are a stern test of Turquoise's grit. She can't rely on support from her mother Charlotte (Lori Hayes), a God-fearing alcoholic who believes that "looks is all a woman needs".

Perhaps smitten suitor and childhood friend Bacon (Akron Watson), who runs the local funeral parlour, could provide financial security.

Miss Juneteenth is an engaging and uplifting portrait of modern womanhood, which champions independence and fortitude in the beating heart of America's bible belt. Peoples' film makes familiar points without fanfare or directorial flourishes, often relishing moments of hushed contemplation between strong, impassioned female characters across the generations.

Beharie and Chikaeze both shine brighter than a pageant tiara even when it seems faint glimmers of hope have been extinguished for good.

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