Even the Formidable Nicole Beharie Cannot Save Miss Juneteenth

Movies Reviews Nicole Beharie
Even the Formidable Nicole Beharie Cannot Save Miss Juneteenth

There’s a perfect line in Miss Juneteenth, and it’s delivered perfectly by Nicole Beharie, an incredible actress who deserves all the things. Nicole, as Turquoise Jones, looks up at a man and tells him, sincerely, “I just want something for myself.” It’s a simple, powerful line, and because Beharie is a force, you believe her and you lean in, for a moment. Yes, bitch. Something for yourself. But there’s one problem with this line. It comes about an hour too late in the story. Our hero has spent the entire film wanting one thing, and one thing only. And it’s not something for herself. Miss Juneteenth is practically finished by the time Turquoise speaks these words and evokes, briefly, the film that should have existed in place of this one.

Channing Godfrey Peoples’ feature directorial debut offers a simple but compelling premise. A former beauty queen pushes her teenage daughter to compete in the Miss Juneteenth pageant, and drama ensues. I didn’t go into the film expecting a groundbreaking story about Black women in Texas, but in a groundbreaking, unprecedented year like 2020, the thought of watching a movie with a Black cast, set in a Black town and centered on a Black holiday sounded like just the remedy for a year where it’s easy to forget that Black people just like to have fun sometimes.

But Miss Juneteenth gets in its own way so often that it offers no such remedy. The film has wonderful performances from Beharie and Kendrick Sampson (who plays Turquoise’s estranged husband, Ronnie), but their work isn’t nearly enough to distract us from the endless parade of tropes in the film, and the complete lack of stakes in the plot. Turquoise is a bartender who works long hours to take care of her daughter, Kai (Alexis Chikaeze). Turquoise is reminded everywhere she goes that she was Miss Juneteenth. Literally—and often inexplicably—everywhere. It’s as if the writer was afraid we’d forget, when the opening of the movie shows Turquoise opening a box and staring wistfully at her crown. This is one problem with the film; everything revolves around not only the upcoming pageant, but Turquoise’s status as a former beauty queen. Everyone is always reminding her that she was once a queen, and now she’s a broke single mother, but, oh! She could have been somebody! (One could argue that this is a classist insult to working single mothers everywhere, but that’s an essay for another day.) Turquoise is now desperate to help her daughter get the crown … which is somewhat baffling precisely because she is living proof that the crown itself is not enough.

The protagonist’s desperation and drive is even more baffling given Kai couldn’t be less interested in becoming a pageant queen. So we have a protagonist who has no interest in changing her own life, but has one drive for another character who doesn’t want the thing, and doesn’t need the thing. In other words, this isn’t a Beautiful Boy scenario, where a parent is desperate for their child to get clean. Without high stakes, the desperation doesn’t make sense. Instead of Turquoise coming off like a parent who just can’t relinquish control, or even an insanely overbearing mother who lives vicariously through her daughter (that might have been more interesting to watch), she just comes off as ridiculous (quite a feat, when you are dealing with the likes of Miss Nikki Beharie). Fighting for her daughter to participate in this very expensive event, whilst their lights get cut off, whilst the daughter insists that she has no desire to participate, makes it a strange story to follow. I am spoiling nothing when I say that Kai does not win Miss Juneteenth because nothing about the movie, or Kai, suggests for even one moment that she might. I’d like to think this was intentional, but the way Peoples shot the pageant scene, it’s clear that we were supposed to be leaning in with bated breath, waiting to find out if Kai (and really Turquoise) won.

The fact that Turquoise has the “wrong” drive throughout the film is not, in and of itself, the problem. Lots of great films present us with a character who wants something that is bad for them, but the bad thing should at least be presented as an exciting thing, a powerful thing, a seductive thing. A good film gets us to believe in the thing they want, anyway. It’s also not unheard of for a hero to put themselves at great risk for a “prize” that only they believe in, but again, Turquoise doesn’t even know what she wants until she says that perfect line towards the end of the movie. If she wants something that’s just for her, why are we just now hearing it, and, more importantly, why has the movie never shown this? When Kai loses the pageant, Turquoise decides to buy the bar that she’s been working in—another moment that seemingly comes out of nowhere. “Turquoise wants to own a bar, but she can’t afford it because she’s a single mom, and she desperately wants her daughter to be in a pageant”—I’d absolutely watch that film, because that is a film where the hero wants something for herself, but can’t quite get to it. That is not what’s happening in Miss Juneteenth. Her sudden desire to buy the bar is an afterthought, and so even when she gets it, it’s a win that feels entirely hollow. The argument could also be made that Turquoise’s drive is less about Kai winning the pageant and getting a college scholarship, and more about Turquoise needing vindication of some sort—“I didn’t live up to the crown, but my daughter did—but this is only hinted at in the film. There is no dramatic turn where Turquoise realizes she’s been going about this all wrong. Even after she tells the man pursuing her that she wants something for herself, we still sit through the completely lackluster pageant scene. That was the moment for Turquoise to make a choice, to pull Kai out of the pageant and enroll her in the dance program she was so passionate about. That was the moment for our hero to change. But it doesn’t happen that way.

The hollowness of Turquoise’s story partially stems from another fatal flaw in the film—nearly every character is a trope of some sort, which makes the plot wholly predictable. Turquoise’s babydaddy and estranged husband is a mechanic with gold fronts. Then there’s a nice man who wears glasses, and runs a business in town. Guess which one is the “good guy” who wants to take care of Turquoise and make her life easier? It’s a credit to the film that neither of these men make or break Turquoise, but there is absolutely no tension to be built in either relationship because it’s so blatantly clear that one man is holding her back, and the other has never been of interest to her. She doesn’t want either of them, and we don’t want them for her. There’s nothing to be conflicted about at all; there’s no one guy to root for. Once again, there are no stakes.

These trope-ish men are just one of many symptoms of a severe lack of authenticity throughout the entire film. When will Hollywood writers learn that when Black people hang out, we do not, shockingly, start half of our sentences with, “you know black people don’t…” or “you know how white people be…” Most of the time we just talk. When will Hollywood filmmakers learn that when someone drives a brokedown truck through a neighborhood in the South, you should absolutely not use banjo music in the score? What is the point of writing church scenes if you don’t know that nobody in a Black church ever caught the Holy Ghost to “Go Tell It On the Mountain?” (a song that is typically only sung around Christmas, anyway). The church scenes are borderline offensive. They are used as a means of introducing Turquoise’s disapproving, deeply Christian mom (a trope in and of itself), and in one scene a group of worshippers start laying hands on Turquoise and Kia, praying that God will let the demons out. Even in a Pentecostal church, you wouldn’t just do this to two random people who don’t even attend the church. As a former church girl who’s been in Baptist and Pentecostal churches in almost every corner of these United States, I take personal offense to religious characters always being portrayed as fanatics. Miss Juneteenth already had enough tropes without relying on this one.

That said, the introduction of Turquoise’s mother, who it turns out isn’t the perfect Christian she appears to be, serves as a reminder that Miss Juneteenth is a film that understands that a good story thrives off complicated relationships—the film simply does not execute these relationships well. Turquoise and her daughter have friction over Kia’s future. Boring, but believable. Turquoise’s mother believes her daughter wasted her gift—her gift is beauty. Also boring, but somewhat believable. At the start of the film, Turquoise and Kai’s dad have started sleeping together again, but Turquoise wants to keep it a secret. She’s not sure she’s ready to put her ring back on. This is interesting! A mother hiding from her daughter that she’s sleeping with someone, and that someone is the father? But this also goes nowhere special. The same is true for Turquoise’s other big secret—that she used to be a stripper, which we learn after that absurd church scene. I think we were meant to clutch our pearls, but it’s 2020. Cardi B is a mom now, and nobody cares if you used to strip! Church women care, sure, but the reveal is meant to have some kind of impact, and just like so much of the other “big” moments in the story, it falls flat.

When Miss Juneteenth isn’t trafficking in tropes, it’s a history lesson, and not the entertaining kind where you forget you’re actually learning; the textbook kind. It opens with the Black National Anthem. Several people explain the significance of Juneteenth. I love the Black National Anthem. And I love that we are learning about Juneteenth, but when you want to deliver history lessons in a film, it has to come from characters and story. Not from the woman running the beauty pageant, as she stands and makes a speech to Black girls and their parents—such information could have come from a real character, someone we were invested in, someone who made conversations about Black history sound natural (admittedly not an easy task, but it’s the responsibility of the filmmaker to achieve this).

Miss Juneteenth could have been a delicious portrait of a mother and daughter both struggling to find themselves as they navigate the pride, pomp and circumstance surrounding a historically Black beauty pageant. It could have been beautiful, and it could have been fun. It’s true that, in this particular moment in history, I wanted “fun” more than I normally do. It could be that my own desire to, if only for an hour and a half, watch Black women play dress up, and wave from a float, rather than sacrifice themselves for a cause, or struggle against an America that literally wants them dead, is impacting this review. But it’s also true that Black films with Black casts and Black directors still have to be good films. I don’t just want beautiful Black people on screen; I want and need beautiful Black people on screen doing interesting and unpredictable things. I want the fun and frivolous Black things, and the sad Black things, and the powerful, and queer, and sexy, and traumatic, and political, and fantasy … I want all the Black things! But I don’t want them like this.

Director: Channing Godfrey Peoples
Stars: Nicole Beharie, Kendrick Sampson, Alexis Chikaeze
Release Date: June 19, 2020 (VOD)

Shannon M. Houston is a film and TV critic, and a writer on Little Fires Everywhere and Lovecraft Country. She is the former TV editor for Paste Magazine, and probably has more babies than you. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter and Instagram.

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