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Miss Juneteenth | Review

Queens Without a Crown: Peoples Mines Strength and Resilience in Quiet Drama

Channing Godfrey Peoples Miss Juneteenth“I learned the truth at seventeen/That love was meant for beauty queens,” Janis Ian once famously lamented, a sentiment which still holds true in cultural definitions of value and worth. With her quiet yet increasingly poignant debut, Channing Godfrey Peoples brings a tempered perspective to the same tropes we’ve seen rehashed or recycled in various cinematic narratives with Miss Juneteenth, an indie drama which arrives at a time when the American social conscious perhaps needs it most, released on a holiday which should have been recognized on the national level since June 19, 1865. Familiar in its presentation of the importance placed on pageantry, its power lies in not only the sobering portrait of a resilient community despite the odds, but the powerful idea of believing in one’s own worth and capability rather than reducing oneself to fit into proscribed and expected roles.

Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie) is seen by her peers as something of a failure. Their thoughts about her failure to launch are evident in nearly all her interactions with the community, working as a bartender in a local Texas BBQ owned by her affable and supportive boss (Marcus M. Mauldin). She won the Miss Juneteenth crown nearly fifteen years ago, a distinction which allows the recipient a major platform to go on and do better things as it comes with a full scholarship to an HCBU of the winner’s choice. But we’re led to realize her nearly fifteen-year-old daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) most likely had something to do with her current status, as well as her failed relationship with Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson), a man committed mostly to irresponsible decisions despite his loving demeanor. Now, it’s Kai’s opportunity to take the crown, and even though her daughter has no real interest in being Miss Juneteenth, Turquoise throws all her deferred dreams into achieving the seemingly squandered success for her daughter.

Peoples’ (who was mentored by Charles Burnett) choice to evoke the timeless words of Dr. Maya Angelou with “Phenomenal Woman” perhaps allows the poet’s most shining cinematic homage since John Singleton’s Poetic Justice (1993) in its reclamation as contemporary performance art with Kai’s centerpiece for the titular pageant. It’s one of several memorable moments in Peoples’ debut which is masterfully carried by Nicole Beharie in her best lead performance since the searing 2008 drama American Violet. She’s matched with charismatic energy by “Insecure” cast mate Kendrick Sampson and newcomer Alexis Chikaeze.

If the various supporting players exhibit some wooden tendencies, they’re easy enough to overlook by the film’s third act, where a meaningful reconciliation between Turquoise and Kai secures the message bubbling underneath the film’s veneer of complex social cues. However, it’s also a narrative which could have perhaps benefitted from a clearer examination of Turquoise’s paradoxical mother, a fire and brimstone Christian by day who is equally abusive as an inebriated boozer at night (if at least to have given the watchable Lori Hayes more screen time, not seen in narrative cinema since her debut in the Holly Hunter film Miss Firecracker in 1988, about a Mississippi beauty pageant).


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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