After winning the Miss Juneteenth beauty contest, Turqioise Jones (Nicole Beharie) has not achieved the success she had once dreamt of. Struggling to pay the bills picking up shifts as a barmaid and mortician’s make up artist, she is determined that her daughter, Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) should follow in her footsteps and experience the opportunities she failed to capitalise on herself.
Channing Godfrey People’s feature film debut eschews competition movie tropes, focussing less on the preparation for the pageant and more on the grift and hard work of Turquoise. Nicole Beharie is fierce and deeply sympathetic as the struggling mother. She is constantly let down by everything around her, illustrating why she hopes for so much more from her daughter. Newcomer Alexis Chikaeze is fabulous as the daughter, Kai. She’s clearly not enthused about the role but it’s a very quiet form of resistance she offers to her mother’s control. The two have a beautiful chemistry and subtle understanding that feels very authentic.
The film features an entirely black cast but the presence of white people as oppressors and the unseen controllers of money and opportunity. The characters are desperate to grasp something that can be their own, and that can’t be cruelly snatched from them. It’s a palpable portrayal of economic insecurity. There are no moustache twirling villains to steal our character’s hard earned money, just a system that is notable for it’s absence; a complete indifference.
It’s fascinating therefore to gain insight into the world of these high pressure beauty contests in which fame, glory and, most importantly, opportunity is the top prize. Winners receive a full scholarship, a scholarship that Kai believes she can achieve through dancing. But the expectations placed on the girls are incredibly archaic. The lessons the young women are being taught will never be useful in their lives, and could not be more at odds with the very real problems Turquoise is experiencing. Though the pageant claims to celebrate emancipation and the promising young woman of their community, they completely fail to support Kai or their former winner.
Although the film is often painful, it refuses to be bleak. This is a vibrant film that features lead characters who won’t be defined by their circumstances. It’s a film about defining your own form of success and breaking away from traditions designed to belittle and entrap young women into a system that won’t support them. It’s a film about coming-of-age and of beauty that no one can judge.