Actress Nicole Beharie first gained attention back in 2008 as the star of “American Violet,” a film based on the experiences of Regina Kelly, who was wrongly charged by Texas police as being a drug dealer. The Florida-born actress takes on yet another pivotal Texas role in “Miss Juneteenth,” starring as Turquoise Jones, a former Miss Juneteenth whose dreams have been deferred.
She is phenomenal. And you can see her anguish and her love for her daughter, Kai, as she worries about her future. She doesn’t have to say a word in some scenes. Her face is that expressive.
She works as a waitress and cleaning lady at Wayman’s barbecue and nightclub, and she also does makeup for the newly embalmed at the local funeral home, which is run by a friend who wants her to become his wife.
But there’s a sadness that surrounds Turquoise, who desperately wants better for her daughter. And if Kai can win the Miss Juneteenth contest and get a scholarship to a historically black college, then Turquoise will at least have the satisfaction of seeing her daughter step up in life.
The trouble is this: Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) s a rebellious teenager who isn’t really interested in becoming Miss Juneteenth — the queen of the celebrations honoring the date when Blacks in Texas learned about Lincoln’s having signed the Emancipation Proclamation — two years after the fact.
It’s not spelled out how Turquoise had her life derailed after being named Miss Juneteenth. But it seems rather clear that she got pregnant with Kai and married Ronnie, a charming but wayward gambler who seems to always be getting into trouble.
He doesn’t live with Turquoise and Kai any more, but he does pop in regularly and tries to have a role in his daughter’s life. He dreams of owning his own auto-repair shop, just as Turquoise dreams of having what she calls “something of my own.”
All of these conflicting dreams come together in a most artful way by the end of “Miss Juneteenth,” and it’s a testament to the talent and sensitivity of writer/director Channing Godfrey Peoples — and her cast.
This is Peoples’ first feature-length film, and it was scheduled to play at the South by Southwest Film Festival in 2020, which was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. The festival, however, went ahead and screened the films for the various juries and handed out awards. “Miss Juneteenth” won the Lone Star Award, honoring the best film from the state of Texas.
Peoples, who grew up in Fort Worth, was an Austin Film Society Fellow, a Sundance Fellow and has received various awards and grants in the making of “Miss Juneteenth.” Appropriately, it is screening, starting on Juneteenth — Friday, June 19 — at the Austin Film Society’s website, austinfilm.org.
If you care about Texas filmmaking, then you’ll want to see this movie. It’s timely, heartfelt and beautiful.
Rating: Not rated
Running time: 99 minutes