Combustible Celluloid
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With: Nicole Beharie, Kendrick Sampson, Alexis Chikaeze, Lori Hayes, Marcus M. Mauldin, Liz Mikel, Akron Watson, Phyllis Cicero, Lisha Hackney, Mathew Greer, Jaime Matthis, Margaret Sanchez
Written by: Channing Godfrey Peoples
Directed by: Channing Godfrey Peoples
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 103
Date: 06/19/2020

Miss Juneteenth (2020)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Pageant Fruits

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

A very timely film, and a fine film for this #BlackLivesMatter moment, Miss Juneteenth opens on the actual Juneteenth, a day that commemorates the freeing of the last slaves in Texas in 1865.

A feature writing and directing debut by Texas-born Channing Godfrey Peoples, Miss Juneteenth is a "little" movie in all the best ways, quietly focusing on a small community of people and their struggles.

Turquoise Jones (an excellent Nicole Beharie) is a former winner of the prestigious Miss Juneteenth pageant. We learn that other winners have gone on to college and to enviable careers.

Available digitally and on demand, the movie doesn't explain specifically what happened to Turquoise, who now works at a BBQ joint as well as a few odd hours at the local funeral home.

But we can assume that she slept with the smooth, dreamy auto mechanic Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson) and became stuck raising a daughter, the now-15-year-old Kai (Alexis Chikaeze).

The plot has Turquoise preparing Kai for this year's competition, obsessively trying to re-create everything that worked for her years earlier. This involves buying a fancy dress she can't afford, and coaxing Kai to memorize the same poem that Turquoise recited.

Kai, for her part, would rather dance. She doesn't care about the other aspects of the competition — such as identifying a salad knife — although Turquoise doesn't notice this apathy.

Unfortunately, this plot often feels like a sitcom, and it makes the otherwise strong character sometimes seem annoyingly pushy and oblivious.

But on the other hand, thanks to the movie's nuanced depiction of this struggling, tightly connected community, we come to sadly realize that the pageant may actually be the only chance that Kai has of making a better life for herself.

In the end, Peoples's assured, gentle direction eventually smooths out whatever flaws are in the screenplay, or at least makes them easy to forgive, and Miss Juneteenth emerges as a movie rooted in truth that refuses to give up hope.

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