It doesn’t take much effort to sympathize with Turquoise Jones.
She’s not just a single mom struggling to keep a hormonal teen in line. She’s not just a working woman who needs two jobs to cover their bills, not just a woman in the workplace forced to contend with the “interest” of an employer, and not just somebody who has to hassle her almost-ex to fork over a little child support.
Turquoise is hung-up on what might have been, the ways her life didn’t go according to plan, the mistakes she made and the people who helped her make them, through unprotected sex or AWOL parenting. Because as the newspaper clipping on the wall of the bar/barbeque where she works reminds her every day, she was once “Miss Juneteenth.”
Writer-director Channing Godfrey Peoples cooks up a lot of relatable complications for Turquoise, played with weary but stoic focus by Nicole Beharie, to contend with. There’s nothing here most of us haven’t dealt with or run into in real life, much less seen on the screen.
Because “Miss Juneteenth” is about a disappointed woman determined that her daughter, Kai (Alexis Chikaeze, superb) not have it as hard. To that end, she’s riding her 14-year-old “about to turn 15” and making sure that somebody is in the child’s company, even when she’s waiting tables at Wayman’s BBQ, or cleaning down at Baker’s Funeral Home.
Sometimes, it’s her handsome but distracted husband (Kendrick Sampson), who every so often reminds her and tells us why he’s not living under their roof any more. Other days it might be her seriously religious mother (Lori Hayes), who isn’t shy about turning Turquoise down because “She’s not MY daughter.”
Mom remembers when Turquoise was Fort Worth’s Miss Juneteenth, a teen with a scholarship to the Historically Black College or University (HBCU) of her choice. That was 15 years ago. And who’s about to turn 15?
Turquoise makes it her mission to put Kai in that same tiara, with that same scholarship and a chance to make better choices and get out of the grind of low-paying jobs, overdue bills and occasional power shut-offs.
Turquoise has avoided the snobs who run the contest for years, but now she’s got to doll up, primp and remember the poise, posture, etiquette and perfect grammar the contest insists on, just to register a VERY reluctant Kai, who’d rather try out for the school dance squad.
“We will ensure she is transformed,” the ladies of Juneteenth purr. And “No daughter of mine” is dressing up “like a pole dancer” to shake her money maker on that dance squad. It’s a very touchy subject for Turquoise.
There’s a long tradition in African American cinema of making movies that entertain, dramatize real life experiences and teach. Here, the instruction is on the 1865 history of the holiday, celebrated when Texas slaves learned they’d been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation two years earlier.
Kai has to take lessons in what fork, glass and spoon to use in formal settings and visit a run-down, unassuming Juneteenth Museum to learn just why she’s going through all this.
Turquoise has to scramble to find the money for a gown and entry fees so that her daughter can live the dream she never did. She’s also got to decide what to do about this marriage and how to respond to the funeral home boss (Akron Watson) who wants to bring her into the middle class with him.
“You were meant for more. You’re too good of a woman to be living the way you do,” paycheck to inadequate paycheck.
The settings feel lived-in — worn down bars, dirty streets and cowboy boots. The script has just enough surprises to keep us engrossed, lots of signs that Turquoise’s pluck and determination are bordering on mania, and plenty of heart, sad affirmations of what Black working poor poverty does to people in the South.
“Ain’t no ‘American Dream’ for Black folks,” BBQ owner Wayman (Marcus M. Maudlin, well-cast) laments. He never misses a day of work and doesn’t over-maintain his popular business because he’s watching every dollar, determined to avoid “the white man’s bank” and hang onto it rather than risk any unnecessary expense.
Writer-director Peoples lets us see Turquoise learn from everybody in her life, even those snubbing her. And he ensures that Kai learns a little, too. Will it be enough to change their fates?
As tried and true as its plot points and sympathies are, “Miss Juneteenth” manages to be a bracing depiction of generational working class poverty, and a beautiful lesson in how easily plans fail when your options are this limited and the pathway to success this narrow.
MPA Rating: unrated, adult subject matter, alcohol, smoking
Cast: Nicole Beharie, Kendrick Sampson, Alexis Chikaeze, Lori Hayes and Marcus M. Mauldin
Credits: Scripted and directed by Channing Godfrey Peoples. A Vertical release.
Running time: 1:37