The Caribbean Carnival has always existed on the periphery of my lived experience. I’m aware of the Caribbean Days in Coquitlam near Vancouver although I’ve never been and I once happened upon the Cariwest Festival in Edmonton by sheer accident. The largest Caribbean Carnival celebration in Canada is on the other side of the country from me in Toronto which is just wrapping up its 2022 edition as I write this. For those who have missed all of the above, a decent proxy can be found in Chris Strikes’ debut feature doc Becoming a Queen.
Joella Crichton has been the reigning Queen of the Caribbean Carnival nine times, including an unbroken seven year stretch of wins. The title is awarded to the woman who prevails in a spirited performance where personality, dance and incredibly elaborate costumes collide in an eye-popping spectacle. As the 2018 edition of the Toronto Caribbean Carnival approaches, Joalla and her team, which includes her mother Lou-Ann, her younger sister Mischka (a competitor in a separate carnival event), and veteran costume designer Kenny Coombs, strive to mount a performance which will secure her tenth win. This goal is made all the more important by Joella’s intention to retire after this year’s event.
The doc capably guides us through the challenges and pressures of mounting a performance that will ultimately last all of a few minutes. Nerves fray as costume problems rear their ugly head, a younger rival sets her sights on Joella’s crown and the wrong music is played before the performance!
The audience is also treated to the wider context of the Caribbean Carnival and its importance to the Canadian Caribbean community where pride and utter joy shine through. For all its exuberance, it remains a difficult event to mount every year, a feat not helped by the dearth of funding and the general lack of societal respect compared to other arts.
Joella is a compelling figure and keeps the narrative afloat. But despite the short 90 minute runtime, this effort feels rather drawn out, leaving one to wonder if this story would have been better realized in a more concentrated short form.
Becoming a Queen ultimately presents a capable, if protracted portrait of a passionate competitor in an underappreciated art form. I would encourage Strikes to follow up this project with an even more comprehensive look at the Caribbean Carnival which in Canada is often reduced to brief mentions in the news cycle. It is certainly deserving of the attention.
Becoming a Queen is now available on major VOD platforms including Apple TV and Google Play