Review by Sean Boelman
Taking its name from a holiday that few people truly understand, the new drama Miss Juneteenth offers a personal and compelling look at the experience of people of color. With an emotional story that touches upon some important ideas, Channing Godfrey Peoples’s wonderful directorial debut will hopefully open the eyes of those who are more privileged.
The film tells the story of a single mother who enters her rebellious teenage daughter into the beauty pageant that she won herself when she was younger. While this underdog story following this disadvantaged mother and daughter duo trying to beat the odds to prove their worth to others is compelling, it is the relationship between the characters that makes the movie stand out.
Most people will empathize with the characters’ arcs. Parents will understand the mother’s desire for her daughter to be better than herself, and many will identify with the pressure the daughter faces from these increased expectations. As a result, the film has a pretty significant emotional impact.
Unfortunately, it is the sad case that today in America, there is a greater pressure on members of minority communities to succeed. Although in recent years there have been networks designed specifically to empower and support people of color youth, there still aren’t as many opportunities afforded to minorities as there are for white people, and as such, it can be much more challenging to improve oneself as a person of color despite having the desire to do so.
This is why the movie works so well — although it is about a beauty pageant, it’s really about two African-American women who are fighting not to succeed, but for a chance to succeed. Theoretically, everyone has to work for their spot at the table. These women, like so many people of color, not only have to work harder for that spot, they also have to work harder to get into the room and even the building.
Lead actresses Nicole Beharie and Alexis Chikaeze are both absolutely wonderful in their roles. Beharie is so subtle and nuanced with her turn that her compassion for the character and what she stands for oozes throughout the film as a whole. And in her first-ever performance, Chikaeze tackles a role that has many layers, all of which she pulls off.
With a quiet but powerful camera helmed by cinematographer Daniel Patterson, the style of director Peoples is obviously still in its formative stages, but she has a very exciting voice. This is never more obvious than it is in the pageant scenes which take something that is normally flashy and reduces it down to its basic elements, allowing the viewer to understand a bit better what the characters are experiencing.
Miss Juneteenth puts up the guise of being a rather simple movie when in reality, it’s something much more complex and emotional. Some may enjoy it as a cutesy story, but its real impact will be as a snapshot of the minority experience in modern-day America.
Miss Juneteenth hits VOD and virtual cinema offerings on June 19.