A lovely, low-key first feature from writer-director Channing Godfrey Peoples, “Miss Juneteenth” has a sense of place and an air of resigned resilience that feels thoroughly lived-in. In no small part, that’s because Peoples has gone back to her hometown of Fort Worth, to anchor this story about a one-time teenage pageant winner, now a weary single mother, who’s pushing her daughter to repeat history and get it right this time.
Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie) — Miss Juneteenth 2004 — is first seen scrubbing the toilet at Wayman’s Lounge, where she has long served up barbecue to the local clientele. We’re given few details, but it’s clear that the promise held out by her pageant win — including a scholarship to a historically Black university — never panned out. She’s too busy to feel sorry for herself, but not too busy to pin her hopes on 14-year-old Kai (Alexis Chikaezie) entering and winning the 2019 contest.
One look at the daughter, dutiful but beginning to peel away from the woman who so ferociously loves her, and a viewer knows there are conflicts ahead. Kai has a high school boyfriend (Jaime Matthis) her mother wants no part of and an interest in an extracurricular dance team that requires her to shake her body in ways to give a pageant judge the vapors.
More pressing is the cash needed to enter the contest and buy a gown, which might seem frivolous when the electricity bill is overdue and Turquoise’s estranged but involved husband, Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson), has his own money woes. The drama of “Miss Juneteenth” — and it’s familiar — lies in Turquoise’s struggle to push her daughter to achieve a mother’s failed dream and her gradual acceptance of the girl’s individuality.
That drama is given soul and sinew by the lead performance of Beharie, who plays Turquoise as unglamorized and beaten down but still possessing the spine of the girl who once won. (When Kai wants to know why one of the pageant administrators is so snippy, Turquoise replies with quiet satisfaction, “I beat her.”) She could be cousin to the stressed-out restaurant manager played by Regina Hall in “Support the Girls” (2018), a movie with which this one would make a nifty double bill.
Like that film, “Miss Juneteenth” benefits from the working-class realism of the supporting players and their own dramas. In Turquoise’s mother (Lori Hayes), a stiff-backed church lady with a nighttime drinking problem, we see the ideals and hypocrisies of the neighborhood in which the heroine came of age. There’s a kindly funeral home operator (Akron Watson) with a crush on Turquoise — since this is Texas, he rides in on horseback in full cowboy regalia to pick her up for a date — and the fact that he’s going to a white bank for a loan to expand his business is treated as a cause for worry. The film is set in a society self-sufficient by necessity and centuries of hard experience, and it wasn’t until it was over that I realized there isn’t a white face to be seen.
Which perhaps gives a white viewer all the more reason to watch it and not only in the current climate. Given how easily the movie goes down and how democratic its faith in human nature, this is hardly a duty. The Miss Juneteenth pageant, a real event in Fort Worth and other cities, isn’t your average beauty contest but one that awards scholarships to winners who reflect the local Black community’s values of service and talent; the contest is named after the holiday that in Texas commemorates the announcement that the state’s slaves were free in 1865 — two years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
The movie is opening on Juneteenth as well — as a virtual screening via the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s website and on-demand rental platforms — and in a year in which everyone deserves to take time to ponder the holiday’s meaning. “Miss Juneteenth” is a simple story but a resonant one: modest but impactful, focused on one woman’s pride and her daughter’s future while unfolding in the bedrock of a known and loved environment. You can feel the history coming up through its pores.
Written and directed by Channing Godfrey Peoples. Starring Nicole Beharie, Alexis Chikaezie, Kendrick Sampson. Available via the Coolidge Corner’s Virtual Screening Room, coolidge.org/films, and other streaming platforms. 100 minutes. Unrated (as PG-13: mild language, sexual situations)