Juneteenth this year will be an important day for Black Americans across the nation as we celebrate our Freedom Day. This holiday, which commemorates the June 19, 1865, announcement of the abolition of slavery in Texas, and more generally the emancipation of enslaved African Americans throughout the former Confederate States of America, holds more significance over the 2020 Black Lives Matter era than ever before.
In the story of Miss Juneteenth, directed by Channing Godfrey Peoples (Queen Sugar), a single mother, Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie), once held the esteemed title of beauty queen Miss Juneteenth in her small Texas town. She wishes to indoctrinate her teenage daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaez) to also become Miss Juneteenth, earning the crown her mother once wore.
As a girl, Turquoise, filled with hopes, dreams, and bright future, took a journey on the wrong path when she met Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson). Ronnie, a ne’er do well who’s light didn’t shine as bright as Turquoise’s — got her pregnant, and as a result, Turquoise became a single mom who holds down her household with only her memories of the past to hang on to. It is all she has left to believe in.
Turquoise is determined to live vicariously through her daughter by enrolling her into the Miss Juneteenth Pageant. The application fee (several hundreds of dollars) is a steep one, but Turquoise is willing to compromise anything to get Kai in — even if this means foregoing the electricity bill. On Kai’s birthday, her mother surprises her with a cake with the only light available being the candles lit on top.
Kai unfortunately is not as enthused as her mother about Miss Juneteenth, nor is she particularly passionate about the talent routine her mother used to win her contest many years before. Kai is trained by her mother to recite Maya Angelou’s poem “Phenomenal Woman.” However, Kai has a fascination for dancing and wants to use her skills in that way for the talent portion of the pageant.
This conflict inevitably becomes the anchor of the story as we learn that both women are fighting for two separate things: Turquoise to reilitigate her past and right her wrongs, and Kai to express herself freely and evolve into the independent woman she’s ready to become.
Ronnie is part of Kai’s life and is also a part of Turquoise’s, too, but the relationship they each have with him is pretty complicated. He’s there part-time, does not live with them, and Turquoise doesn’t want Kai to know when he spends his evenings there as if she’s ashamed of being with him.
Nicole Beharie gives a stunning performance as a mother and a woman trapped in her own history going through the experience of “what ifs” and dreams deferred. The film also gives an inside-look at Black pageant glamour, which is not often depicted. Miss Juneteenth can now be added to future movie lists of beauty pageant films. The experience of seeing the vetting process and learning proper etiquette during the dinner table from Black teachers was refreshing.
In a statement, director Channing Godfrey Peoples said the following about Miss Juneteenth:
“I want Miss Juneteenth to contribute to more diverse representations of African-American women on screen. Through exploring issues unique to Black women and our identity and culture, my hope is the film will be a universal story about the resilience of the human condition.”
Peoples summed it up perfectly here, because Miss Juneteenth is a universal story. There’s a bit of Turquoise in all of us. There are times when we do hold on to the past, whether that past was good to us or not so good to us, and there is a time we have to let go and be free. We have to liberate ourselves from the ghosts of our past. Beautiful performances, loving familial relationships, and captivating drama are the elements you will get out of this film and will come away feeling completely rewarded.
Miss Juneteenth is on Demand and Digital Friday, June 19, 2020.
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Jamie Broadnax is the creator of the online community for Black women called Black Girl Nerds. Jamie has appeared on MSNBC's The Melissa Harris-Perry Show and The Grio's Top 100. Her Twitter personality has been recognized by Shonda Rhimes as one of her favorites to follow. She's the primary film critic for BGN and is a member of the Critics Choice Association.