Review: ‘Miss Juneteenth,’ starring Nicole Beharie, Kendrick Sampson and Alexis Chikaeze

January 16, 2021

by Carla Hay

Nicole Beharie in “Miss Juneteenth” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Miss Juneteenth”

Directed by Channing Godfrey Peoples

Culture Representation: Taking place in Fort Worth, Texas, the drama “Miss Juneteenth” features a predominantly African American cast (with a few white people and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A former Miss Juneteenth beauty pageant winner, who has dead-end jobs and is struggling financially, pressures her reluctant teenage daughter to enter the same contest so that the daughter can have a chance to win college scholarship money.

Culture Audience: “Miss Juneteenth” will appeal to people who are interested in well-acted and realistic dramas about how people deal with regrets over some of their life choices.

Nicole Beharie and Alexis Chikaeze in “Miss Juneteenth” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

Several reality TV shows about beauty pageants with underage girls as contestants have exposed what is common knowledge in the pageant world: These kiddie pageants really aren’t about the children. These pageants are about the adults who want to show off their children and get bragging rights and prize money if their kids win these contests.

The dramatic film “Miss Juneteenth” has a beauty pageant for teenage girls as the driving force behind much of the characters’ actions. But the movie goes deeper than just the superficial aspects of preparing for this contest. “Miss Juneteenth,” anchored by a standout performance by Nicole Beharie, is a story about a mother with broken dreams who’s living vicariously through her daughter to try to recapture those dreams and “do over” certain parts of her life.

In “Miss Juneteenth” (the feature-film debut of writer/director Channing Godfrey Peoples), Beharie portrays Turquoise Jones, who is floundering in all aspects of her life in her hometown of Forth Worth, Texas. Turquoise’s main job is working as a bartender at a dive bar called Wayman’s, named after its no-nonsense owner Wayman (played by Marcus M. Mauldin), who considers Turquoise to be his most reliable and trusteed employee. In the beginning of the film, it’s shown that Turquoise’s job at the bar also entails janitor duties and being the bar’s unofficial manager who keeps track of the business revenue.

As Turquoise cleans a toilet in one of the bar’s bathrooms, one of her co-workers named Betty Ray (played by Liz Mikel) watches her and comments: “I’ll never get over seeing Miss Juneteenth cleaning toilets … You practically running this bar.” Turquoise is good enough at her job as a bartender that it’s shown early on in the movie that she can make $800 in tips in one night.

Turquoise also occasionally works part-time as a mortuary assistant at Baker Funeral Home, where she prepares bodies for funerals by doing their makeup. Her mortuary boss, Bacon Baker (played by Akron Watson), whose family owns the business, is a bachelor who makes it clear that he’s attracted to Turquoise and is interested in dating her. Bacon doesn’t cross the line into blatant sexual harassment, and he’s respectful of Turquoise’s wishes to keep their relationship strictly platonic. In an early scene in the movie, Bacon tells Turquoise the bad news that business has been slow at the funeral home, so he’s going to have to reduce her work hours.

The timing couldn’t be worse for Turquoise, because she’s been preoccupied with having her teenage daughter Kai (played by Alexis Chikaeze) enter the upcoming Miss Juneteenth beauty pageant. The costs for the Miss Juneteenth pageant require a certain amount of money that Turquoise knows will break her household budget. Kai, who is 14 and turns 15 years old during the course of the story, is vivacious, intuitive and slightly rebellious.

Kai isn’t completely enthusiastic about the pageant, which is a contest that means more to Turquoise than it means to Kai. However, Kai goes along with what her mother wants because she wants to make her mother happy. As time goes on, Kai sees how much her mother is willing to sacrifice in order to get Kai in the pageant.

Turquoise wants Kai to win the contest because of the pageant’s grand prize: scholarship money to attend a historically black college or university. But Turquoise also has ulterior motives, which have more to do with herself than with Kai. Turquoise is a former Miss Juneteenth winner who didn’t live up to her expected potential. And although Turquoise never says it out loud, it becomes obvious that Turquoise wants to redeem herself, through her daughter Kai, in the Miss Juneteenth pageant.

It’s briefly explained in the movie what Juneteenth is, for people who don’t know the historical significance to African Americans. Juneteenth celebrates June 19, 1865: the date that African Americans in Texas found out that they were freed slaves—two years after the Emancipation Proclamation made slavery illegal in the United States. Juneteenth is a reminder of the importance of people not only having civil rights but also knowing about civil rights and living it.

Turquoise was a Miss Juneteenth winner in 2004. What happened to her since then isn’t revealed all at once in the movie, but it’s spoken about in bits and pieces, in the way that people speak about things that they’re slightly ashamed of in their past. Turquoise was headed to college and was going to use the Miss Juneteenth scholarship money for her university tuition. But at some point, Turquoise got pregnant with Kai. Turquoise abandoned her college plans, and she married Kai’s father Ronnie (played by Kendrick Sampson), who ended up having a lot of personal struggles with menial jobs and an arrest record.

The marriage fell apart. Ronnie and Turquoise separated, but haven’t gone through with a divorce. It isn’t really made clear when Ronnie and Turquoise split up, but at some point, he became a deadbeat dad. Out of financial desperation, Turquoise became a stripper—something she’s not proud of, but she doesn’t deny it when other people remind her or when Kai finds out in a humiliating way.

Turquoise’s on-again/off-again relationship with Ronnie is complicated, because she and Ronnie have recently begun sleeping together again, but they are still living in separate homes. Kai notices that her father has been sleeping over in Turquoise’s bedroom, and eventually Turquoise and Ronnie let it be known that they might be getting back together permanently. Turquoise wants to take things slow, because it’s implied that Ronnie did a lot of things in the past to emotionally hurt her, and she’s gradually giving him a chance to earn back her trust.

Ronnie currently works as a mechanic and seems to be trying to get his life back on track. In in an early scene in the movie, he promises Turquoise that he’s going to “do right” by her and Kai this time. When Ronnie finds out that Turquoise wants Kai to be in the Miss Juneteenth pageant, he doesn’t hesitate to give Turquoise some cash to help out with the expenses.

Turquoise appreciates Ronnie’s generosity, but the money that she gets from Ronnie isn’t enough to cover all the pageant costs. Turquoise’s level of obsession with the Miss Juneteenth pageant becomes very apparent when she has a choice of paying her house’s electricity bill (which is already overdue) or paying the pageant entry fee. Turquoise is also adamant that Kai should have a “fancy” new dress from one of the top boutiques in the area, not a previously owned dress or a dress from a discount store.

Turquoise chooses not to pay the electricity bill, in order to pay the pageant entry fee. And the house’s electricity is turned off on (of all days) Kai’s 15th birthday. Kai is upset, but Turquoise tries to put a positive spin on this turn of events and assures Kai that their lack of electricity is only temporary. Later in the movie, Turquoise runs into other financial problems that affect her ability to pay for certain things.

Why is Turquoise so fixated on this pageant? What is she trying to prove? As the story goes on, it becomes apparent that she’s having an early mid-life crisis. Turquoise is regretting a lot of decisions that she made her teens and 20s, and she feeling that she’s disappointed herself and others who had high hopes for Turquoise. The Miss Juneteenth pageant and the scholarship money that she won represented Turquoise’s ticket to a better life. And now, she feels like she really blew it.

And to make it worse for Turquoise, she’s still stuck in her hometown, where she feels like too many people know how much of a “failure” she turned out to be. She’s reminded of it in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. For example, when Turquoise and Kai go to a sign-up table to enter the Miss Juneteenth Pageant, Turquoise encounters a snooty woman named Clarissa (played by Lisha Hackney), who is on the pageant committee but who isn’t a judge.

Clarissa makes a snide comment that if Kai wins, hopefully Kai will actually be able to use the scholarship prize. There’s obvious tension between Turquoise and Clarissa. And so, it comes as no surprise when Turquoise tells Kai that Clarissa was in the same 2004 Miss Juneteenth Pageant that Turquoise won. It seems that Clarissa still holds a grudge over losing, but Clarissa is getting gloating satisfaction over seeing Turquoise not living up to her expected potential.

The current pageant contestants and some of their parents are given a tour of the Miss Juneteenth headquarters, which has a room with photos of past Miss Juneteenth winners. Turquoise’s picture is on the wall, but she doesn’t get mentioned during the tour. The tour guide points out some notable former Miss Juneteenth winners whom the organization seems to be the most proud of: a civil rights activist, a surgeon and a congressman’s wife. By saying that being a congressman’s wife is an example of being an accomplished former Miss Juneteenth, it shows an old-fashioned mindset that a woman is considered “accomplished” based on who she marries, not her own individual achievements.

It’s this underlying conservatism in the pageant that Turquoise is acutely aware of when she pressures Kai to make a certain choice in the talent segment of the pageant. Kai wants to do a hip-hop dance routine. Turquoise says that it’s a bad idea because she thinks that hip-hop isn’t dignified enough for Kai or the pageant. Instead, Turquoise insists that Kai recite the Maya Angelou poem “Phenomenal Woman.”

The arguments that Turquoise and Kai have over what Kai wants to do to express her talent have less to do with a generation gap and more to do with the image that Turquoise wants Kai to project. Almost all of Turquoise’s decisions for Kai in the pageant are about making Kai look like she’s in a higher social class than she really is. Turquoise knows putting on these false airs is a charade, since there are too many people involved in the pageant who know that Kai comes from a working-class household. However, Turquoise still forges ahead with the hope that Kai will be judged as a “classier” person than the type of person Turquoise has been judged to be.

The intergenerational conflicts in the Jones family isn’t just about Turquoise and Kai. Turquoise has major issues with her own mother Charlotte (played by Lori Hayes), who is a devout, churchgoing Christian but who has a past as an alcoholic and neglectful mother. Turquoise and Charlotte have a very strained relationship, and they’re not in contact with each other very much.

Charlotte disapproves of how Turquoise’s life has turned out, and Charlotte thinks that Turquoise’s life would improve if Turquoise went to church on a regular basis. Charlotte also disapproves of Turquoise working in a bar. Turquoise is not religious and wants no part of Charlotte’s Bible-thumping lifestyle.

Turquoise also feels lingering resentment toward Charlotte because Turquoise had a dysfunctional and unhappy childhood due to Charlotte’s alcoholism. There are hints that Charlotte was emotionally and verbally abusive to Turquoise. It’s shown in the story that because Turquoise and Charlotte both haven’t completely conquered certain demons from their past, it’s caused them to distrust each other and made it hard for them to respect each other.

And it’s why Charlotte is skeptical about Turquoise’s goal to have Kai win the Miss Juneteenth pageant, which Charlotte calls “pipe dreams.” Charlotte believes that Turquoise has set a bad example for Kai because Turquoise squandered the opportunities that Turquoise got from winning the Miss Juneteenth pageant. This disappointment has created an oppressive circle of shame where Charlotte makes Turquoise feel bad about these wasted opportunities, while Turquoise feels enough remorse about herself and tries to prevent Charlotte from making her feel worse.

The greatest strength of “Miss Juneteenth” is how authentically the movie portrays a specific part of African American culture, without being pandering or exploitative. The movie also goes beyond race to show how Americans’ self-esteem is often wrapped up in the idea that someone is a “failure” if that person hasn’t achieved the American Dream, whatever the definition of the American Dream is. The world of child/teen beauty pageants in the U.S. represents a small slice of wanting to achieve the American Dream. And it’s why many working-class families (usually mothers), just like Turquoise, spend a lot of money they can’t afford to have their daughters in these pageants.

“Miss Juneteenth” is also a poignant story about the sometimes-uncomfortable process of reconciling a young person’s dreams with the reality of how that person’s life turned out when that person isn’t so young anymore. Turquoise wants to be more than the stereotype of a financially struggling African American mother who’s the only head of her household, but she’s also feeling shame that her life in many ways has become that stereotype. Turquoise doesn’t want Kai to make the same mistakes, but Turquoise also wants to use Kai (and the hope that Kai will win the Miss Juneteenth pageant) as “proof” that Turquoise did something right with her life after all.

With the skilled and naturalistic direction and writing of Godfrey Peoples, “Miss Juneteenth” is a convincing depiction of complicated people who don’t seem like characters only created for a movie but more like characters who accurately represent a lot of people in America today. Beharie gives a captivating performance as the flawed but industrious Turquoise, who knows she’s not perfect, but is doing her best to improve her life. This determined mother sees her daughter winning the Miss Juneteenth pageant as the answer to her own immediate problems without necessarily understanding that the pageant can’t really fix her life in the way it needs to be fixed. Above all, the movie is a worthwhile inspiration for showing that chasing after what you don’t have shouldn’t come at the expense of appreciating what you do have.

Vertical Entertainment released “Miss Juneteenth” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on June 19, 2020.

Review: ‘All Roads to Pearla,’ starring Alex MacNicoll and Addison Timlin

October 23, 2020

by Carla Hay

Alex MacNicoll and Addison Timlin in “All Roads to Pearla” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“All Roads to Pearla”

Directed by Van Ditthavong

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in Texas, the crime drama “All Roads to Pearla” has a predominantly white cast (with a few Latinos and African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A senior in high school falls for a prostitute, who gets him mixed up in her criminal activities. 

Culture Audience: “All Roads to Pearla” will appeal primarily to people who like non-linear, muddled, noirish dramas with vague endings.

Alex MacNicoll (center) and Paige McGarvin (left) in “All Roads to Pearla” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

The crime drama “All Roads to Pearla” begins with an ambiguous scene and ends on an ambiguous scene. If you hate movies that end on a cliffhanger, and there’s almost no chance that the movie is getting a sequel, then it’s best to avoid watching “All Roads to Pearla.” It’s a movie that tries very hard to be gritty and sleek at the same time, yet it comes up short when it comes to overall storytelling.

“All Roads to Pearla” (formerly titled “Sleeping in Plastic”) is the first feature film from writer/director Van Ditthavong, who uses a lot of quick-cutting, back-and-forth editing techniques to attempt to make the story more of a mystery than it actually is and to give the movie a more suspenseful tone. Just as viewers get settled into watching what’s going on in a scene, the movie cuts away to show what’s happening at the same time somewhere else. There are also many flashbacks, so viewers have to pay attention to piece together the whole story. But even then, the puzzle ends up incomplete. What the movie really comes down to is a not-very-original concept of a young man who’s led astray by a femme fatale.

The movie’s protagonist is Brandon Bell (played by Alex MacNicoll), who’s in his last year at Lakeside High School in an unnamed suburb in Texas. Brandon is a wrestler on the school’s team, which is led by tough-but-motivational Coach Baker (played by Nick Chinlund), who considers Brandon to be a one of the best members of the team. Brandon is a loner who has an unhappy home life: His father abandoned the family, his younger brother has died, and his emotionally abusive, alcoholic mother Pearla (played by Morgana Shaw) blames Brandon for everything that’s gone wrong in her life.

The movie opens with a naked teenage boy running through a field into an open road and getting accidentally hit and killed by a car. Who is this boy and why was he running naked outside? The movie takes a long and muddled time to get some answers to that question, but the film is mainly preoccupied with showing Brandon’s dangerous attraction to a local prostitute whose name also happens to be the same as his mother’s: Pearla.

When Brandon first meets Pearla (played by Addison Timlin), who’s about the same age as Brandon, he doesn’t know that she’s a sex worker. He sees her while they’re both in a grocery store, and their eyes briefly lock in the way that indicates there’s an immediate attraction between them. After Brandon leaves with his grocery items and gets in his truck to leave, Pearla approaches him and starts up a flirtatious conversation with Brandon.

He’s so awed by her that he doesn’t even ask what her name is, but he tells her his name. She asks Brandon if he wants to make some easy money: For $50, she wants Brandon to give her a ride to “meet a friend” and wait for her for about an hour. It sounds suspicious, and Brandon doesn’t say yes right away. However, he and Pearla exchange phone numbers in case he changes his mind.

Someone at the grocery store who’s noticed this attraction between Brandon and Pearla is a cashier named Ellie (played by Paige McGarvin), who happens to be a classmate of Brandon’s. The next day in school, Ellie warns Brandon to stay away from the teenage girl he met in the parking lot. Ellie tells Brandon that this girl is a troublemaker who was caught shoplifting in the store and her reaction at getting caught was to throw a violent temper tantrum. Ellie doesn’t sugarcoat what she thinks of this mystery wild child: “She’s crazy.”

Brandon’s response is to ask Ellie on a date to go to the movies with him. But it’s clear from the time that Ellie and Brandon spend together that although she might be romantically attracted to him, he only wants her to be his platonic friend. Brandon is very intrigued by the girl he met in the grocery store parking lot, so he calls her and agrees to be her driver for the agreed-upon fee.

When they meet for the second time, Brandon asks her what her name is. When she tells him her name is Pearla, he mentions the strange coincidence that his mother’s name is also Pearla. Brandon makes it clear that he doesn’t have a good relationship with his mother. Pearla also comes from a broken home and she’s an only child. She has a cocaine habit, but Brandon doesn’t indulge in any drug taking when Pearl offers him some coke.

Brandon quickly figures out, based on Pearla’s instructions, that she’s a prostitute. When he asks her directly if she’s a hooker, all she will say is “I help people sleep at night.” After she comes back from the first place where Brandon dropped her off, she asks him to make two more stops. He’s reluctant at first, until she increases her payment to $100.

At one of the stops, Brandon finds out that he knows one of Pearla’s customers because he immediately recognizes the house where this person lives. Brandon becomes a Peeping Tom and looks in the bedroom window where Pearla and the customer are. And this customer has a dirty secret that Brandon discovers, because he can see what’s about to happen with this customer and Pearla before the lights get turned off.

When the sex session is over, the customer goes outside the house and sees that Brandon is Pearla’s driver. The customer and Brandon both look at each other that says in an unspoken way, “We both know this secret. Now what are you going to do about it?” Later, when Brandon sees this person again and tries to mention what he saw that night, the other person pretends that it didn’t even happen.

Meanwhile, Pearla is definitely not a “hooker with a heart of gold.” She’s in cahoots with her pimp Oz Bacco (played by Dash Mihok) and Oz’s muscleman Teddy (played by Marcus M. Mauldin) to rob her clients. After she ends a sex session with a client, who is usually caught off guard, she makes sure the door is unlocked so that Oz and Teddy can immediately invade the place and rob the client.

In the beginning of the movie, this type of robbery takes place at motel where Cowboy Loy (played Corin Nemec), one of Pearla’s customers, is robbed and assaulted by Oz and Teddy, who wear full face masks during these crimes. Their assault is so brutal that they nail one of Cowboy Loy’s hands to a dresser. But the money that was stolen in this robbery came from the business owned by Cowboy Loy and his business partner Mamo (played Tina Parker), and they’re both hell-bent on getting revenge. It’s pretty easy to see at this point where the movie is going to go.

Brandon and Pearla become lovers, and he gets more caught up in trying to be her protector, even though he’s aware that his life could be in danger. Brandon doesn’t have any specific goals on what he wants to do with his life after high school. He’s contemplating a possible move to El Paso to work on an oil rig, since he knows someone in El Paso who’s in that line of work. When he mentions it to Pearla, she says she would like to move to El Paso with him too if she can get enough money.

When someone like Pearla tells someone like Brandon, “I love you,” she doesn’t really mean it. It’s just her way of saying what Brandon wants to hear so that she can further manipulate him into doing what she wants. Brandon naïvely thinks that this prostitute with a cocaine addiction and a domineering pimp will just be able quit her criminal activities and move to El Paso with him when the time is right. But criminals like Pearla and Oz are too addicted to making money through illegal activity to suddenly “go straight.” Will Brandon be collateral damage?

Although “All Roads to Pearla” starts out promising, the movie quickly devolves in the last third of the story into a violent mess. MacNicoll and Timlin are very good in their roles as mismatched lovers Brandon and Pearla, but the movie’s supporting characters are written and performed as two-dimensional characters or borderline caricatures. Mihok as Oz is particularly over-the-top in his villainous role, but in an annoying way, not an entertaining way.

And about the sexual secret that Brandon knows about that’s very scandalous: The person who has the secret reacts in a fairly predictable way when it looks like someone might reveal this secret. “All Roads to Pearla” tries to go for a modern noir vibe, but it mishandles the “mystery” elements of the story with too many confusing flashbacks and that still don’t tell enough of a backstory to make this a well-rounded thriller.

The best scenes in the movie are those that involve Brandon’s dysfunctional home life. A vicious verbal argument that Brandon has with his mother is well-acted and very realistic. And there are hints, but not enough disclosure, about the death of Brandon’s younger brother that has caused so much turmoil in his family. The romance between Brandon and Pearla is utterly predictable because it’s been done so many other times before in movies that have femme fatales who lure gullible men into a life of crime.

Sometimes a movie’s mediocre acting or choppy direction can be forgiven if the overall story is intriguing and told in an original way. But it’s hard to like a movie that leaves major issues unresolved by the end of the film. In that respect, “All Roads to Pearla” is a movie that ends up leaving viewers feeling stranded and conned.

Gravitas Ventures released “All Roads to Pearla” in select U.S. cinemas, digital and VOD on September 25, 2020.

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