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Rating: ****

The celebration of identity is at the forefront of Channing Godfrey Peoples’ directorial debut, Miss Juneteenth. Drawn from her own experiences growing up in Fort Worth, Texas, Peoples crafts a beautiful love letter to womanhood, motherhood and, above all, African-American culture. All this with a cinematic eye so refined it’s incredible this is her first feature.

Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie in a groundbreaking performance) is the former winner of the Miss Juneteenth beauty pageant, where young black women compete to win an all-important scholarship. But things didn’t go well for Jones and years later she’s a single mother juggling two underpaid jobs to provide for teenage daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) with one goal in mind – she’ll compete at the pageant, thus earn her ticket out to a better life.

To become a Miss Juneteenth is a sign of prestige about which only Jones seems to care. As the symbol of her unfulfilled dreams, she channels that drive to her daughter, even if it is against her will. Kai, on the other hand, has her own goals to pursue, all too similar to other 15-year-old girls. She is trapped between asserting her own identity and pleasing a mother who loses her own identity to give Kai a final chance.

The community around them is colourful and welcoming, yet struggling with poverty, rampant alcoholism, religious zealotry and crime. But Peoples knows how to shoot this in an inspiring way. Because this is her world, she finds beauty where other filmmakers would perhaps be patronising. Sometimes she cuts to some beautiful abandoned buildings on the side of the road or lets the colours of the neon lights at the bar to fill her screen in an almost dreamy haze. She tenderly presents her characters like she has been observing them all her life, and in return, they pop out like the genuine human beings they are.

Only two places aren’t as hospitable as the rest of the town – the church, where old ladies exorcise their hypocrisy in grotesque displays, and the Miss Juneteenth classes, where young black women are taught outdated rules of decorum.

It is the identity that is always being celebrated. Juneteenth is a holiday that remembers the day Texan slaves were freed, two years after the declaration of emancipation. It’s a cultural milestone so intrinsic to African-Americans yet unacknowledged by most of the country. In Miss Juneteenth it’s a symbol of liberation that isn’t earned but awarded; the reason for helping to perpetuate the problems of the community. Jones reminisces about performing Maya Angelou’s Phenomenal Woman, but it takes her daughter’s interpretation for her to understand truly what it means.

While Beharie is tremendous and will deserve every award thrown her way, it was Peoples who impressed me most. Her composition is incredible, a masterclass on nuance and subtlety in how to extract the best from a scene. One specific crane tracking shot is used at the exact perfect moment,  the scene wouldn’t have been as strong if not for it. And that’s the mark of a not only a quality filmmaker, but a great artist.