2020 was the year white America became aware of Juneteenth, and, though the President of the United States sought to claim that he and he alone made the holiday “very famous,” I suspect responsibility for its sudden prominence lies elsewhere. Whatever the reason (and setting aside Trumpian hyperbole), it seems likely the day will henceforth assume a more significant place on the nation’s calendar.
Miss Juneteenth (currently screening at the Virtual Roxie Theater) underscores the day’s cultural importance to African Americans. Set in Fort Worth, Texas, it’s the story of working mom Turquoise (Nicole Beharie), who’s raising teenage daughter Kai (promising newcomer Alexis Chikaeze) while mopping floors and waiting tables at the corner barbecue joint and maintaining an on again-off again relationship with Kai’s father, Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson).
A former winner of Fort Worth’s Miss Juneteenth pageant, Turquoise is saving her tips to pay the annual competition’s entry fees for 15-year old Kai. Being crowned Miss Juneteenth comes with a full-ride scholarship to an HBCU, and Turquoise is determined that daughter won’t spend her adult life slinging hash like mom.
There’s one hitch: Kai isn’t particularly interested in winning. Though they love each other dearly, Turquoise is frustrated by Kai’s grudging participation, while Kai wishes her mother would back off and let her join the school dance team instead. And then there’s Grandma Charlotte (Lori Hayes), a disapproving church lady with an alcohol problem…
Written and directed by Channing Godfrey Peoples — a protegé of legendary filmmaker Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep) — Miss Juneteenth offers a sensitive and compelling tale of multi-generational family conflict, an outstanding ensemble cast, and a terrific rhythm and blues soundtrack. It’s an auspicious feature debut for Peoples.
The challenges of parenting also figure prominently in The Last Tree, opening at the Roxie on Friday, June 26. Set in the Lincolnshire fens and in London, the film stars Sam Adewunmi as Femi, a young boy in rural foster care whose birth mother (Gbemisola Ikumelo) turns up one day to take him to live with her in the Big Smoke.
The culture shock is painful and intense. Femi deeply resents his mother taking him from the freedom of the countryside to the confines of a tower block; as he grows older his resentment turns to smoldering anger as he struggles to find a place he can truly call home.
While writer-director Shola Amoo doesn’t sidestep the challenges of big city life, this is not a film about a young man succumbing to — and ultimately overcoming — temptation. Amoo offers a much more measured take on teen life than we usually get on screen: when we think the story is going in one direction, it soon goes in another — and then another. Hauntingly scored by Segun Akinole (whose last gig was composing incidental music for the most recent series of “Doctor Who”), The Last Tree makes a perfect double-bill partner with Miss Juneteenth.
Finally, cat people will want to check out the hour long Quarantine Cat Film Festival. Culled from dozens of videos that would otherwise languish unseen on YouTube, the Fest features kitties falling off furniture, drinking out of the toilet, and, in one case, inserting their head into their human’s gaping mouth. As a bonus, when you purchase your $12 ticket all proceeds go to the Roxie!