A trip to the cinema might still be an unnecessary health risk, but that doesn’t mean we have to suffer for a lack of quality film releases. Just last week it was announced that director Channing Godfrey Peoples’ debut feature film, Miss Juneteenth, has been picked up by Vertigo for distribution in the UK and Ireland. The drama, which Peoples wrote as well as directed, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and is set to be released on 18 September.
It’s intriguing, if somewhat daunting, to imagine a time when it might just be physically safe for many of us to sit and watch a film in a room with strangers again. Who knows, maybe the 1hr 39 snapshot of Black American womanhood will be top of the list for film buffs looking for something to watch with friends. Then again, maybe Miss Juneteenth is better suited to a long-awaited (or dreaded) reunion with your mum, dealing as it does with a mother-daughter relationship. At least, that’s the impression given by the amount of attention given to said mother and daughter in the film’s trailer.
The trailer has the patchwork feel to it and lack of conventional structure that audiences have learned to expect from independent productions, but it doesn’t beat around the bush with the film’s subject matter. A flashback shows a young Turquoise Jones resplendent in a yellow ballgown and sash, the proud winner of the Miss Juneteenth beauty pageant. That triumphant moment, however, swiftly cuts to around 15 years later, showing an adult Turquoise (Nicole Beharie) as a single mother scraping by on various part-time jobs, projecting her abandoned dreams onto her teenage daughter, Kai (Alexis Chikaeze). Peoples evidently refuses to hold up her protagonist as an object of pity, however: when told “I will never get over seeing Miss Juneteenth cleaning toilets,” Turquoise simply laughs. That laugh kicks off the trailer’s main body along with a jaunty musical accompaniment that occasionally clashes with the film’s considerably less cheerful subject matter.
Close-up shots of electricity bills and scraped-together cash show Turquoise’s struggle to make ends meet, much less fork out for a glamorous ballgown to make her daughter stand out in the pageant. The beauty contest itself, meanwhile, is suggested to be in no way immune to the culture of superficiality that we’ve come to expect from such events, as one of the women Turquoise won against takes her grudge out on the younger, more inexperienced Kai.
The trailer offers, too, a taste of the tension and conflict in Turquoise and Kai’s relationship – one that some future Film BA student will inevitably compare to that between Laurie Metcalf and Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird – as Turquoise pushes her daughter to enter the competition despite Kai, an aspiring dancer, being apathetic at best on the matter. At the same time, Turquoise’s flaws are counterbalanced with the obvious and fierce love she holds for the latter, as Peoples creates their own retelling of the tried-and-tested story of a parent whose more questionable actions are rooted in their love for and desperation to “save” their child. As Turquoise tells Kai’s father (Kendrick Sampson), “She my dream now… I’m gonna make sure that she’s something that we ain’t.” With a scholarship included in the top prize, the pageant is foregrounded as a ticket out of the poverty its low-income, female and Black contestants risk staying trapped in. At the same time, the trailer suggests that Peoples’ script will scrutinise exactly how empowering it is to dangle the offer of an education (and, by implication, a better life) in front of a 15-18 year old girl based on how well she presents in evening wear, or her ability to tell the difference between a dinner knife and a salad knife.
With the titular beauty pageant being the focus of the trailer, it’s likely that comparisons will be made between this film and Misbehaviour, the more starry drama released in March this year. Directed by Philippa Lowthorpe, it starred Keira Knightley as one of the women who infamously protested at the 1970 Miss World pageant, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Jennifer Hosten, one of its first black contestants. Admittedly, valiant attempts are made to showcase that complexity of Hosten’s situation, fighting for black to be seen as beautiful in a show where women are reduced to sex objects. Misbehaviour’s trailer, however, suggests the end product to be a lukewarm, box-ticking exercise in intersectional feminism, with Knightley’s character and her white second-wave feminist friends remaining front and centre.
Peoples, by contrast, gives a middle finger to the depressingly common fear that main characters of colour just aren’t relatable enough for the “average” audience (average meaning white, because of course it does). Instead, if the trailer is anything to go by, her debut feature film unapologetically centres the daily lives, triumphs, struggles and flaws of Black women and girls, evidently with no time or tolerance for the “white saviour” tropes and tokenism that have only recently started to loosen their grip on the film industry. The existence of Miss Juneteenth, in short, serves as yet more evidence of the dire need for greater diversity, and more representation for people of colour – especially women – behind the camera as much as in front of it.
Since its premiere, Miss Juneteenth has seen widespread acclaim, with an impressive 99% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. A cursory glance at the reviews shows critic after critic praising Peoples’ directing and screenplay, Beharie’s acting and the film’s tackling of multiple themes and their intersections, from race to class to motherhood and back again.
UK audiences may find it harder to relate to the characters of a film that appears firmly grounded in its unmistakably American setting of Fort Worth, Texas. It’s likely, however, that the film’s critical reception will be generally positive, if its reputation in the States is anything to go by.
Words by Emma Curzon