Saturday, June 20, 2020

Miss Juneteenth is an Easygoing and Impressive Directorial Debut For Channing Godfrey Peoples

Every parent wants their child to have the best. For Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie), that means making sure her daughter, Kai Jones (Alexis Chikaeze) wins the local Miss Juneteenth beauty pageant. After all, winners to this competition get a scholarship to any prestigious all-Black college in Texas. That's the kind of education Turquoise, whose struggling to pay her home's electricity bill, just can't afford. It's also the kind of education that Turquoise knows will give Kai the opportunity to lead a better life than her mother. Miss Juneteenth is the story of a mother wanting the best for her daughter and the ways that this pursuit impacts the dynamic between Turquoise and Kai.

Miss Juneteenth serves as the directorial debut for writer/director Channing Godfrey Peoples. The spirit she instills into Miss Juneteenth is a relaxed vibe. There's an everyday calmness to the proceedings. This ambiance is so ingrained into Miss Juneteenth that a supporting character fires off a gun at an alligator off-screen and it's treated as a peculiarity rather than an earth-shattering development. Miss Juneteenth is able to maintain this atmosphere, though, without sacrificing either palpable drama or interesting sociopolitical commentary. Make no mistake, Miss Juneteenth is definitely trying to make a larger point, specifically regarding the avalanche of extra challenges facing Black people in regards to balancing financial obligations with the pursuit of one's personal identity.

In If Beale Street Could Talk, there's a point where Joseph Rivers (Colman Domingo), when asked how he plans to have the money necessary to aid his pregnant daughter, says "That white man, he wants you to be worried about the money. That's his whole game." It's a line that resonates as so true in American society. Our culture piles up extra financial obligations and obstacles on Black people in the name of making sure they stay at a bottom-rung level of society. Even wealthier Black people are subject to being ordered to merely work at their jobs rather than engage in activism that reaffirms their humanity.

Refrains from White people of "Shut up and dribble" or "Get that son of a bitch off the field" greet Black sports players who dare to raise awareness for race-based police brutality. Underneath those refrains is an order for Black people to focus exclusively on making money at their jobs. Do that instead of raising awareness on issues that make White people uncomfortable. These struggles specific to Black people are the core foundation of Miss Juneteenth. That navigation between financial obligations and the pursuit of your own dreams, identity, and loves underlies even the most seemingly throwaway scene of the production.

Peoples shows real craft in how she interweaves this concept into so many different forms throughout Miss Juneteenth. Though so many of the characters in Miss Juneteenth share the struggle of being torn between financial and personal obligations, Peoples makes sure this turmoil manifests in different ways across the cast. Turqoise's boss, for example, is struggling to keep his tavern financially independent. The prospect of selling off something he put his blood, sweat, and tears into off to some rich white folks in the city is understandably distressing. Meanwhile, Kai is trying to follow her mom's wishes of training for the pageant while also developing interests in her own passions, like a local dance team and a boy she likes.

The various explorations of these characters don't just prove to be intriguing examinations of being caught between personal and financial obligations. Miss Juneteenth also crafts characters that are just extremely engaging in their own right. I especially loved how Peoples renders the characters of Turquoise Jones. It's never easy being a mother and I love the way every aspect of Miss Juneteenth employs a sense of empathy towards Turquoise. Even when she's being overbearing to her daughter, you always understand what's motivating her and why. There's an empathetic quality to the depiction of Turquoise Jones, particularly a bittersweet moment where she sits out on her porch, adorned in her Miss Juneteenth crown, contemplating her past, present, and future.

That dialogue-free moment works as well as it does primarily due to the performance of Nicole Beharie. In this scene and throughout all of Miss Juneteenth, Beharie shows a real gift for conveying the underlying emotions of a character in subdued terms. Beharie's temperament in the role of Turquoise Jones, one laced with a compelling determined quality, also excels. Though she's capable of being vulnerable Jones is always facing new issues in her life head-on. Even the lights suddenly going off in her home can't seem to faze Turquoise Jones. Beharie makes this assured side of the character totally believable.

Meanwhile, in the role of Kai Jones, Alexis Chikaese also delivers great work in portraying an authentic portrait of a teenager. Jones especially works well in her chemistry with Behaire in their more quiet scenes.  The two of them have a convincing mother/daughter rapport together. Thankfully, the frequently laidback nature of Miss Juneteenth means we get many scenes dedicated to just exchanges between Beharie and Chikaese's characters. Channing Godfrey Peoples' restrained tendencies as a filmmaker allow these two actors plenty of opportunities to shine. It's one of a number of great qualities found in her direction throughout Miss Juneteenth.

Though the atmosphere Peoples creates may be demure, don't mistake that for a lack of depth. On the contrary, Miss Juneteenth nestles oodles of thought-provoking material into this enjoyable mother/daughter yarn.

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