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'Miss Juneteenth' review: Well-told, warm-hearted drama

(L-R) Nicole Beharie as Turquoise and Alexis Chikaeze

(L-R) Nicole Beharie as Turquoise and Alexis Chikaeze as Kai in the drama, "Miss Juneteenth." Credit: Vertical Entertainment

PLOT A former pageant queen hopes her rebellious daughter will win the next crown.

CAST Nicole Beharie, Alexis Chikaeze, Kendrick Sampson

RATED Unrated (some suggested sexuality)

LENGTH 1:39

WHERE Digital and on demand.

BOTTOM LINE A well-timed and warm-hearted drama about Black history and heritage.

A modest tiara and a yellow dress are all Turquoise Jones has left of her dreams in “Miss Juneteenth,” a slight but sincere drama from Texas-born filmmaker Channing Godfrey Peoples. The film takes its title from a black beauty pageant that grants the winner a college scholarship and a ticket to a better future. Turquoise never cashed hers in, but she’s hoping her 14-year-old daughter, Kai, can tear herself away from her smartphone and boyfriend long enough to win this year’s crown.

Kai doesn’t understand. “It’s not like it’s Miss America,” she says.

It’s arguably more meaningful than that. Juneteenth is a nickname for June 19, 1865, the day Texas finally freed its slaves (a belated two-plus years after the Emancipation Proclamation). The film’s release coincides with this informal national holiday, and Peoples, making her film debut, clearly wants to convey its importance. Shot in the writer-director's native Fort Worth, “Miss Juneteenth” tells the story of a small-scale pageant that echoes with larger themes of pride, heritage and hope.

The film’s most familiar face is Nicole Beharie (of the sports drama “42” and Fox’s “Sleepy Hollow” series), who plays Turquoise as a refreshingly upbeat character. Not that her straits aren’t dire: As a waitress at Waylan’s BBQ and Lounge (with a side-hustle as a funeral home cosmetician), Turquoise can barely afford electricity, let alone Kai’s $400 entry fee to the pageant. As for Kai, played by an appealing Alexis Chikaeze, she’d rather audition for a sexy dance squad, the Fort Worth Divas. On a field trip to a cobbled-together Juneteenth museum, featuring snapshots of pageant winners stapled to a wall, Kai looks unimpressed.

The narrative feels familiar – a parent’s dream deferred is imposed upon the child – but Peoples compensates with small moments that ring true: a game of dominoes in a back room, a lively night at that barbeque joint, a cameo appearance from local activist Opal Lee. Cinematographer Daniel Patterson creates a vibrant color-scheme that might be called Texas Tropical – a green wall here, a crimson bouffant there, the sun-bleached auto shop that employs Ronnie, Turquoise’s estranged husband (Kendrick Sampson, exuding a roughneck sensuality).

“Miss Juneteenth” is fairly low on dramatic tension, and it waits too long to tackle head-on the complicated issue of the pageant’s apparent Eurocentrism (straightened hair, “proper” diction). Still, it has tenderness and hopefulness to spare. Like the photo gallery on that museum wall, its spirit shines through.

MISS JUNETEENTH (2 ½ STARS)

PLOT A former pageant queen hopes her rebellious daughter will win the next crown.

CAST Nicole Beharie, Alexis Chikaeze, Kendrick Sampson

RATED Unrated (some suggested sexuality)

LENGTH 1:39

WHERE Digital and on demand.

BOTTOM LINE A well-timed and warm-hearted drama about Black history and heritage.

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