Review: ‘Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.,’ starring Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown

August 30, 2022

by Carla Hay

Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown in “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” (Photo by Steve Swisher/Pinky Promise LLC/Focus Features)

“Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.”

Directed by Adamma Ebo

Culture Representation: Taking place in Atlanta, the comedic film “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” features an all-African American cast of characters representing the working-class, and middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A megachurch’s preacher and his wife strive to make a comeback after his fall from grace due to sexual misconduct scandals.

Culture Audience: “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of stars Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown, and will appeal to viewers who like mockumentaries that are satires of people who place more value on fame and fortune than on honesty and morality.

Conphidance and Nicole Beharie in “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” (Photo by Steve Swisher/Pinky Promise LLC/Focus Features)

“Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” is a comedic mockumentary that adeptly skewers religious hypocrisy, vanity and greed in megachurch culture. The movie’s pacing drags in some parts, but Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown captivate with their lead performances as disgraced megachurch couple Trinitie Childs and Lee-Curtis Childs. “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” also offers bittersweet observations that are examples of the religious adage, “All that glitters is not gold.”

Written and directed by Adamma Ebo, “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” is Ebo’s feature-film directorial debut. The movie had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. The film’s producers include Hall, Brown, Daniel Kaluuya, Adamma Ebo and her identical twin Adanne Ebo. Jordan Peele is one of the executive producers. It’s a movie that puts a spotlight on the impact of religious leaders on African American communities and what can happen if one of those leaders is knocked down from a pedestal and tries to get back up on top again.

Although some things in the movie might seem over-the-top ridiculous, anyone who has followed news about scandal-plagued religious leaders will know that many of their antics, denials and posturings are very close to what’s portrayed in “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” The movie gets its title from several scenes in the movie where Trinitie, at Lee-Curtis’ persuasion, holds up a sign that reads “Honk for Jesus” to passing cars on the street, in desperate attempts to attract followers. Over time, Lee-Curtis convinces Trinitie to degrade herself when holding up the “Honk for Jesus” sign, such as telling her to shake her rear end in a sexually suggestive manner.

Beyond the obvious comedic parts, “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” is a searing indictment of the patriarchal ways of megachurch culture and how women are expected to be subservient to men. In the movie, Lee-Curtis is the one who caused the scandal that lead to his megachurch’s downfall, but his loyal wife Trinitie is the one who gets the brunt of the pressure to redeem their reputation. Lee-Curtis makes demands on Trinitie that slowly chip away at her soul, and Trinitie has to decide if her marriage to Lee-Curtis is worth this erosion of her self-esteem and self-worth.

“Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” begins with Trinitie doing a sit-down interview by herself in the empty building of the Wander to Greater Paths Baptist Church, which Trinitie and Lee-Curtis founded but whose congregation has drastically shrunk from 26,000 members to five loyal members. The church’s followers have diminished, but Lee-Curtis has accumulated a lot of personal wealth that he and Trinitie are determined to keep. Trinitie and Lee-Curtis not only believe that they deserve this wealth but that it’s also God’s destined plan for them.

A documentarian named Anita Bonet (who is heard occasionally in the movie but never seen on camera) is directing a documentary about Trinitie and Lee-Curtis and their attempt to make a comeback after Lee-Curtis experienced several accusations of sexual misconduct. Several of Lee-Curtis’ accusers are suing him over these allegations. The details of these allegations are revealed about halfway through the movie but won’t be mentioned in this review.

Trinitie says in her interview: “Every woman is not built for the responsibility of being a first lady. Lee-Curtis and I, we’re just going to the other side … You know, have you ever seen a rat go from the inside of a house to the outside of a house? They chew through. So, we’re going to gnaw through the hardest parts.”

Lee-Curtis is arrogant and unapologetic about his alleged misdeeds. He also has unwavering confidence that the couple’s comeback, which they plan to take place during the upcoming Easter Sunday, will be entirely successful. Over time, some cracks in his veneer of morality start to show, which should come as no surprise when considering many real-life religious leaders who go through scandals with former secrets that expose their hypocrisy.

The mockumentary includes interviews with Lee-Curtis, Trinitie, some of the couple’s supporters, some of the couple’s critics and people from the general public who are somewhat neutral. In addition, there are snippets of “archival” footage of Wander to Greater Paths Baptist Church services in the couple’s heyday at the church. In one of his sermons, Lee-Curtis shows his homophobia by saying that the “homosexual agenda” is “disrespectful to marriage. Take it from me: I am the prophet with the beautiful wife and the gorgeous Bugatti.”

The Childs couple’s five loyal followers are Deacon Alastor Culpepper (played by Robert Yatta); his wife, Deaconess Culpepper (played by Greta Glenn, also known as Greta Marable Glenn); Kensington Straterly (played by Perris Drew), a Divinity School graduate student; Sapphire Devaughn (played by Crystal Alicia Garrett); and Aria Devaughn (played by Selah Kimbro Jones), Sapphire’s daughter, who’s about 12 or 13 years old. Kensington says, “Pastor Childs is ahead of his time. He’s a visionary.”

While Trinitie and Lee-Curtis try to win back their flock of followers, they have some competition: a polite younger pastor named Keon Sumpter (played by Conphidance) and his devoted wife Shakura Sumpter (played by Nicole Beharie), who want to form their own megachurch in Atlanta. The Sumpters have founded Heaven’s House Baptist Church, which has more than 1,000 congregants so far and has gained many new members who used to be congregants of the Wander to Greater Paths Baptist Church. And what a coincidence: Heaven’s House Baptist Church plans to have its grand opening on the same Easter Sunday that the Wander to Greater Paths Baptist Church plans to re-open.

“Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” mines this megachurch rivalry for all of what it’s worth, but the more interesting power dynamics are between Lee-Curtis and Trinitie. There’s not enough shown about Keon and Shakura to get a handle on their true personalities. Keon and Shakura have the polish of religious people who don’t want to say a bad thing about anyone in public, but there’s no real indication of what Keon and Shakura are really like in private. The movie seems to suggest that Keon and Shakura have not yet been corrupted by greed and fame because Keon and Shakura aren’t at the megachurch level where Lee-Curtis and Trinitie used to be and which Lee-Curtis and Trinitie are trying to reclaim.

Some scenes in the movie work better than others. For example, a scene of Trinitie visiting a hat shop isn’t as funny as it could have been. A much better comedic scene is one where Trinitie and Lee-Curtis interact with their few remaining congregants at the Wander to Greater Paths Baptist Church, in a pathetic attempt to pretend as if all is going well at the church. Another amusing scene shows the supposedly pious Lee-Curtis and Trinitie, who publicly preach about the evils of cursing, but privately in their car, they rap along to Crime Mob’s curse-filled song “Knuck If You Buck.”

There’s a sex scene in the movie that looks a little out of place because it’s the only scene that doesn’t look like it was filmed for a documentary. However, the purpose of this scene is made clear later in the movie when Lee-Curtis’ sex scandals are revealed in more detail. There are other clues that point to the nature of these sexual misconduct allegations and the damaging impact that Lee-Curtis’ actions have had on his accusers.

Lee-Curtis is very transparent in his ambitions, so his character is very easy to predict. Trinitie is less predictable and more interesting because she has moments where she looks like she begins to wonder if she made the right decision to “stand by her man.” There’s a very telling scene in the movie where Trinitie has breakfast with her mother Sabina (played by Avis-Marie Barnes), who gives advice that is an example of how sexist patriarchy is enabled and encouraged in the name of religious tradition.

Aside from certain aspects of church and religion, “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” offers social commentary on what lengths people will go to, in order to pursue fame and fortune; create an “aspirational” wealthy image; and try to give the impression of having a “perfect” life when one’s life is actually falling apart. The characters in this movie just happen to be African American. However, the movie cleverly brings up issues that are timeless and relevant to any culture.

Focus Features will release “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” in U.S. cinemas and on Peacock on September 2, 2022.

Review: ‘892,’ starring John Boyega, Nicole Beharie, Michael Kenneth Williams, Connie Britton, Jeffrey Donovan, Selenis Leyva and Olivia Washington

January 26, 2022

by Carla Hay

John Boyega in “892” (Photo by Chris Witt)

[Editor’s Note: After this movie premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, Bleecker Street acquired the movie and changed the movie’s title from “892” to “Breaking.”]

“892”

Directed by Abi Damaris Corbin

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Marietta, Georgia, the dramatic film “892” features a cast of African American and white characters (with a few Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A former U.S. Marine, who’s an Iraq War veteran, takes hostage of a bank in order to get the $892.42 that he says the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs owes him.

Culture Audience: “892” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in suspenseful but formulaic movies with themes about how U.S. veterans are treated by the government, as well as racial inequalities in the criminal justice system.

Michael Kenneth Williams (pictured at far right) in “Breaking” (Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street)

The suspenseful drama “892” leaves some major questions unanswered, but the message of this movie is loud and clear: “The U.S. government needs to improve how military veterans are treated by the system.” John Boyega gives a riveting performance in a movie that’s sometimes hampered by hostage movie clichés, underdeveloped characters and not enough empathy for the hostage victims. “892” had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

Based on true events, “892” is the second feature film directed by Abi Damaris Corbin, who co-wrote the “892” screenplay with Kwame Kwei-Armah. The screenplay is based on Aaron Gell’s 2018 Task & Purpose article “They Didn’t Have to Kill Him.” It’s a movie that takes some shortcuts in telling a story that puts more emphasis on showing the stress and intensity of a hostage situation instead of giving a well-rounded view of the people who were directly involved in this crisis.

The movie is told mostly from the perspective of a former U.S. Marines lance corporal who takes hostage of a Wells Fargo bank in Marietta, Georgia. This Iraq War veteran is angry and frustrated that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, also known as the VA, has withheld payment of $892.42 that he says he has a right to have. In real life, this hostage incident took place on July 17, 2017. And this distraught former military man was Brian Brown-Easley, a 33-year-old divorced father of an elementary-school-aged daughter.

Boyega portrays Brian Brown-Easley with a mixture of compassion, sorrow and ferocity in how this doomed military veteran expresses himself and interacts with the people around him. Most of the movie is told in “real time” during this bank standoff, but there are a few flashbacks that give some (but not enough) information on what led Brian to commit such a desperate act. The movie shifts perspectives mainly when it shows what’s happening outside of the bank during this standoff, as one person involved has somewhat of a breakthrough in emotionally connecting with Brian.

The beginning of the movie shows that Brian appears to be a devoted father to his daughter Kiah (played by London Covington), who’s about 6 or 7 years old. As they spend time together talking on the phone, they have a father-daughter joke about the “Lord of the Rings” villain creature Gollum and the character’s grotesque physical appearance. Brian is putting up a happy front for Kiah, but his life is really falling apart.

Brian is living in a motel, which is about to evict him for non-payment. It’s one of the reasons why Brian is so angry that he can’t get the $892.42 benefits payment that he says that the VA is wrongfully withholding from him. A flashback shown later in the movie reveals that this payment was denied to Brian because the VA was paying for Brian’s college tuition, but VA records show that he stopped attending the college, so the VA withheld payment to compensate for the college tuition. Brian insists it’s a case of mistaken identity.

About 10 minutes into the movie, Brian is shown holding the bank hostage, so viewers don’t get to know much about Brian in the beginning of the film. Brian walks into the bank while he’s carrying a backpack, and he calmly interacts with a bank teller to withdraw $25 from his bank account. He has a friendly bank teller named Rosa Diaz (played by Selenis Leyva), who is chatty and helpful. But after Brian gets his $25, he shows her a note that says, “I have a bomb.” And that’s when things take an ominous turn.

A quick-thinking bank manager named Estel Valerie (played by Nicole Beharie) notices that Rosa seems very anxious with Brian. Estel immediately figures out that some kind of robbery or threat is in progress, so she’s able to discreetly get most of the employees and all of the customers out of the bank. The bank isn’t that crowded, but it’s a bit of an “only in a movie” stretch that one person was able to do all of this so quickly without the hostage taker noticing that the bank is being evacuated.

The bank is evacuated to the point where Estel and Rosa are the only hostages during this standoff. There are repetitive scenes where Brian shouts to anyone who’ll listen some variation of this threat: “I’m going to kill myself and everybody in here if my demands are not met!”

He also insists on having Estel and Rosa call as many media outlets as possible because he wants his “mission” to get as much publicity as possible. “Fraud was committed! My disability check was stolen from me, and I want it back!” Brian shouts. Rosa and Estel both try to appease Brian by telling him that they can give him as much money as he wants from the cash in the bank. However, he adamantly refuses to accept any money that isn’t directly from the VA.

Meanwhile, just like Brian wanted, there ends up being live media coverage of the standoff, especially after Brian gets on the phone for a live conversation with WSB-TV producer Lisa Larson (played by Connie Britton), who tries to give Brian the impression that she’s on his side and wants him to safely get him what he’s demanding. Brian goes back and forth in deciding whether he can trust Lisa or not. Even though his hostage plan/bomb threat might be foolish, he’s smart enough to know that Lisa’s main agenda is to get as much out of this story as she can as a TV producer.

While all of this chaos is happening, there’s a section of the movie where the authorities and Brian have trouble reaching his ex-wife Cassandra Brown-Easley (played by Olivia Washington), who is fast-asleep (she works the night shift and is exhausted) and not answering her phone. When she does find out what’s happening, she seems curiously and inexplicably emotionally detached, which could be interpreted as shock. Viewers will get the impression that when Cassandra first hears that Brian is responsible for this hostage crisis, her attitude is, “Well, he’s my ex-husband, so he’s not my problem.”

However, Cassandra seems to already think the worst possible outcome will happen. Whenever law enforcement contacts her about Brian during this crisis, her first question is usually: “Is he dead?” This movie presents Cassandra as an ex-wife who doesn’t have much information to divulge about Brian and why he would commit these crimes.

Cassandra does have a very heavy emotional moment later when the reality of the situation sinks in, but for some parts of the movie, she doesn’t act like a mother who’s too concerned about how this crisis will affect her daughter. For example, she lets Kiah watch the TV news to see what’s happening with the standoff. You don’t have to be a parent to know that it would be very traumatic for a child to watch this type of news coverage that could end with the child seeing a parent killed or arrested on TV.

Brian seems to know that even if he does get the money that he says is owed to him, getting arrested or killed are the only two realistic outcomes for him. He doesn’t seem all that concerned about having an escape plan, because he knows it would be pointless. And what about the two women who are being held hostage? Brian assures them: “If I die today, I die alone.”

The issue of race comes up occasionally during this hostage crisis—not as as an excuse or explanation, but to show that Brian is all too-aware that because he’s African American, he’s less likely to survive law enforcement’s reaction to what he’s doing. Shortly after Estel (who is African American) and Rosa (who is Afro-Latina) are taken hostage, Brian asks Estel if the bank has been robbed before. She says yes, and the robber was arrested. Brian says, “They didn’t kill him? He got to be white.”

Unlike most hostage takers, Brian insists on having a hostage negotiator. A small army of law enforcement is stationed outside and near the bank, including members of the Marietta Police Department, the Cobb County Sheriff’s Office and the FBI. Some of them argue about who’s going to take the lead in the negotiations.

In the end, Eli Bernard (played by Michael Kenneth Williams), a sergeant with the Marietta PD, becomes the chief negotiator. Eli also happens to be an African American and a former Marine, just like Brian, so they bond over this shared identity. Eli often calls Brian “brother” and is the only one during the standoff who come closest to gaining Brian’s trust. (“892” is one of the last on-screen roles for Williams, who died of a drug overdose in 2021.)

The movie spends a lot of time trying to garner sympathy for Brian. And there’s no doubt that Boyega’s impactful performance is the main reason to watch “892.” However, all of this emphasis on Brian comes at the expense of sidelining the thoughts and feelings of all the other characters. Beharie shows some grit in her performance of Estel, who is more composed during this crisis than panic-stricken Rosa. However, Estel and Rosa are not shown as fully developed people. They’re just hostage victims who react to what Brian does and what he wants.

All the people outside of the bank are essentially the types of characters that have been in plenty of other hostage movies. Lisa is the ambitious and shrewd media person. Eli is the sympathetic “good cop.” And there’s the predictable “trigger happy” law enforcement officer Major Riddick (played by Jeffrey Donovan), who would rather have the hostage taker dead at the end of the ordeal instead of alive. The role of Major Riddick is quite generic and only in the movie so that Eli inevitably has someone to clash with over authority issues and negotiation tactics.

Even though the movie succeeds in keeping a suspenseful tone throughout, there are some inconsistencies in the storytelling. At one point in the movie, Brian is described as someone who’d never been in trouble with the law before, based on background checks that are done when he’s identified as the hostage taker. But then, there’s a flashback scene of Brian being handcuffed by police officers while he’s having a meltdown in a VA office because he can’t get his money.

Perhaps the movie’s biggest shortcoming is in how “892” avoids discussing mental health. Viewers won’t find out if Brian had a mental illness that was diagnosed or undiagnosed. And if he did have any mental illness, how long did he have it? Was he getting treatment for it? Those questions remain unanswered in the movie.

People can certainly speculate that as a war veteran, Brian might have had post-traumatic stress disorder. However, someone just doesn’t go into a bank and commit this type of horrifying act just because they want $892 from the government. Brian says he wants the media coverage to bring attention to the VA’s mistreatment of veterans, but it’s obviously illogical and wrong to try to get attention for this issue by holding innocent people hostage and threatening to blow up a building.

Details about Brian’s personal life are also not fully explained. Brian hints that he’s mainly responsible (or at least he blames himself) for his divorce from Cassandra, but the details over why they got divorced are never mentioned in the movie. Brian also says that he has an estranged brother, but his parents or other relatives aren’t even mentioned. Brian is obviously a loner, so he has no friends who can offer any insight. During this crisis, Cassandra is the only person in Brian’s family who is contacted.

All of this gives some skimpy background information that might explain why Brian felt he had no one that he could turn to for help. However, it doesn’t explain why Brian wasn’t thinking of his daughter when he committed an act that would result in Brian being taken away from her. It can be left up to interpretation that Brian subconsciously wanted a “suicide by cop” situation, but the movie doesn’t seem too interested in addressing mental health as a reason for why someone would do what Brian did. By leaving out these mental health issues, “892” could have come very close to portraying Brian as a negative and hollow stereotype of an “angry black man,” if not for Boyega’s nuanced performance.

“892” doesn’t frame Brian’s actions as a heroic “one man versus the system” story, but rather as a tragedy whose outcome probably would have been different if Brian had been white. There are moments in the movie where Brian seems to understand that his irreversible actions will cause a lot of emotional damage to his daughter Kiah. However, those moments are few and far in between, because the movie is mainly concerned about making Brian the person who should get the most sympathy in this tragedy. It’s debatable whether or not all of that sympathy is deserved.

Another shortcoming in “892” is how the movie has a trivial way of showing the traumas that Estel and Rosa have to deal with after the standoff is over. As a hostage thriller, “892” certainly delivers when it comes to creating tension-filled scenes. Some of the scenarios seem too contrived for a movie though, just for the sake of dragging out the story so that Brian can get more agitated and start yelling again. It’s the type of hostage film where the movie’s message is made very clear, but viewers still won’t know much about the hostage taker when the movie is over.

UPDATE: Bleecker Street will release “Breaking” (formerly titled “892”) in U.S. cinemas on August 26, 2022.

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.

2020 IFP Gotham Awards: ‘Nomadland’ is the top winner

January 11, 2021

by Carla Hay

With two prizes, including Best Feature, “Nomadland” was the top winner at 2020 IFP Gotham Awards. The winners were announced in New York City on January 11, 2021. “Nomadland,” a drama directed by Chloé Zhao and starring Frances McDormand as a widow who lives out of her van, also received the Gotham Audience Award, which is voted on by IFP members. On January 6, 2021, it was announced that Independent Filmmaker Project (IFP) is renaming itself the Gotham Film & Media Institute, also known as The Gotham.

Best Actress went to Nicole Beharie of “Miss Juneteenth,” while Best Actor went to Riz Ahmed of “Sound of Metal.” Breakthrough Actor (a category for people of any gender) was awarded to  “One Night in Miami…” actor Kingsley Ben-Adir, who portrays Malcolm X in the movie.

There were two categories that resulted in ties in winners: Best Documentary was awarded to director Ramona S. Diaz’s “A Thousand Cuts” (about Filipina journalist Maria Ressa’s battles with government backlash in the Philippines) and director Garrett Bradley’s “Time,” a movie spanning decades about Louisiana woman Fox Rich’s quest to get her husband released from prison. The Best Screenplay award also resulted in two winners: Radha Blank’s “The Forty-Year-Old Version” (a comedy about a female playwright who decides to become a rapper at 40 years old) and Dan Sallitt’s “Fourteen,” a comedy about a mentally ill woman.

This was the first Gotham Awards show to have TV categories. The winners were both from HBO: the superhero drama “Watchmen” for Breakthrough Series – Long Format and the #MeToo drama “I May Destroy You” for Breakthrough Series – Short Format.

In non-competitive categories, the Film Tribute Award went to actress Viola Davis, actor Chadwick Boseman, filmmaker Steve McQueen and the Netflix drama “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” “Westworld” actor Jeffrey Wright received the Made in New York award, which is given to entertainers who were raised in New York City or have strong ties to New York.

The Western drama “First Cow” went into the ceremony with the most nominations (four), but ended up not winning any IFP Gotham Awards.

Here is the complete list of nominees and winners of the 2020 IFP Gotham Awards:

*=winner

Best Feature

The Assistant

Kitty Green, director; Kitty Green, Scott Macaulay, James Schamus, P. Jennifer Dana, Ross Jacobson, producers (Bleecker Street)

First Cow

Kelly Reichardt, director; Neil Kopp, Vincent Savino, Anish Savjani, producers (A24)

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Eliza Hittman, director; Adele Romanski, Sara Murphy, producers (Focus Features)

Nomadland*

Chloé Zhao, director; Frances McDormand, Peter Spears, Mollye Asher, Dan Janvey, Chloé Zhao, producers (Searchlight Pictures)

Relic

Natalie Erika James, director; Anna Mcleish, Sarah Shaw, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riva Marker, producers (IFC Midnight)

Best Documentary

76 Days

Hao Wu, Weixi Chen, Anonymous, directors; Hao Wu, Jean Tsien, producers (MTV Documentary Films)

City Hall

Frederick Wiseman, director; Frederick Wiseman, Karen Konicek, producers (Zipporah Films)

Our Time Machine

Yang Sun, S. Leo Chiang directors; S. Leo Chiang, Yang Sun, producers (Passion River Films)

A Thousand Cuts* (tie)

Ramona S. Diaz, director; Ramona S. Diaz, Leah Marino, Julie Goldman, Christopher Clements, Carolyn Hepburn, producers (PBS Distribution | FRONTLINE )

Time* (tie)

Garrett Bradley, director; Lauren Domino, Kellen Quinn, Garrett Bradley, producers (Amazon Studios)

Best International Feature

Bacurau

Kleber Mendonça Filho, Juliano Dornelles, directors; Emilie Lesclaux, Saïd Ben Saïd, Michel Merkt, producers (Kino Lorber)

Beanpole

Kantemir Balagov, director; Alexander Rodnyansky, Sergey Melkumov, producers (Kino Lorber)

Cuties (Mignonnes)

Maïmouna Doucouré, director; Zangro, producer (Netflix)

Identifying Features*

Fernanda Valadez, director; Astrid Rondero, producer (Kino Lorber)

Martin Eden

Pietro Marcello, director; Pietro Marcello, Beppe Caschetto, Thomas Ordonneau, Michael Weber, Viola Fügen, producers (Kino Lorber)

Wolfwalkers

Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart, directors; Paul Young, Nora Twomey, Tomm Moore, Stéphan Roelants, producers (Apple)

Bingham Ray Breakthrough Director Award

Radha Blank for The Forty-Year-Old Version (Netflix)

Channing Godfrey Peoples for Miss Juneteenth (Vertical Entertainment)

Alex Thompson for Saint Frances (Oscilloscope Laboratories)

Carlo Mirabella-Davis for Swallow (IFC Films)

Andrew Patterson for The Vast of Night (Amazon Studios)*

Best Screenplay

Bad Education, Mike Makowsky (HBO)

First Cow, Jon Raymond, Kelly Reichardt (A24)

The Forty-Year-Old Version, Radha Blank (Netflix)*

Fourteen, Dan Sallitt (Grasshopper Film)*

The Vast of Night, James Montague, Craig Sanger (Amazon Studios)

Best Actor

Riz Ahmed in Sound of Metal (Amazon Studios)*

Chadwick Boseman in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Netflix)

Jude Law in The Nest (IFC Films)

John Magaro in First Cow (A24)

Jesse Plemons in I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Netflix)

Best Actress

Nicole Beharie in Miss Juneteenth (Vertical Entertainment)*

Jessie Buckley in I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Netflix)

Yuh-Jung Youn in Minari (A24)

Carrie Coon in The Nest (IFC Films)

Frances McDormand in Nomadland (Searchlight Pictures)

Breakthrough Actor

Jasmine Batchelor in The Surrogate (Monument Releasing)

Kingsley Ben-Adir in One Night in Miami… (Amazon Studios)*

Sidney Flanigan in Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Focus Features)

Orion Lee in First Cow (A24)

Kelly O’Sullivan in Saint Frances (Oscilloscope Laboratories)

Breakthrough Series – Long Format (over 40 minutes)

The Great, Tony McNamara, creator; Tony McNamara, Marian Macgowan, Mark Winemaker, Elle Fanning, Brittany Kahan Ward, Doug Mankoff, Andrew Spaulding, Josh Kesselman, Ron West, Matt Shakman, executive producers (Hulu)

Immigration Nation, Christina Clusiau, Shaul Schwarz, Dan Cogan, Jenny Raskin, Brandon Hill, Christian Thompson, executive producers (Netflix)

P-Valley, Katori Hall, creator; Katori Hall, Dante Di Loreto, Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping, Liz W. Garcia, executive producers (STARZ)

Unorthodox, Anna Winger, Alexa Karolinski , creators; Anna Winger, Henning Kamm, executive producers (Netflix)

Watchmen, Damon Lindelof, Creator for Television;  Tom Spezialy , Nicole Kassell , Stephen Williams, Joseph E. Iberti, executive producers (HBO)*

Breakthrough Series – Short Format (under 40 minutes)

Betty, Crystal Moselle, Lesley Arfin, Igor Srubshchik, Jason Weinberg, executive producers (HBO)

Dave, Dave Burd, Jeff Schaffer, creators; Dave Burd, Jeff Schaffer, Saladin K. Patterson, Greg Mottola, Kevin Hart, Marty Bowen, Scooter Braun, Mike Hertz, Scott Manson, James Shin,  executive producers (FX Networks)

I May Destroy You, Michaela Coel, creator; Michaela Coel, Phil Clarke, Roberto Troni, executive producers (HBO)*

Taste the Nation, Padma Lakshmi, David Shadrack Smith, Sarina Roma, executive producers (Hulu)

Work in Progress, Abby McEnany, Tim Mason, creators, Abby McEnany, Tim Mason, Lilly Wachowski, Lawrence Mattis, Josh Adler, Ashley Berns, Julia Sweeney, Tony Hernandez, executive producers (SHOWTIME)

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