A sweet portrait of black girlhood, Miss Juneteenth is a cruising exploration of how black communities, and its women in particular, hold each other up in a society designed to fail them. Starring Nicole Beharie (known for her role in TV series Sleepy Hollow) and newcomer Alexis Chikaeze as mother and daughter Turquoise and Kai Jones, Miss Juneteenth is writer-director Channing Godfrey Peoples’ debut feature film.
Former Fort Worth, Texas Miss Juneteenth pageant queen Turquoise Jones has had a rather unglamorous life; after winning the crown, Turquoise’s life was derailed by an unplanned pregnancy, a failed marriage and an increasing debt. Now working multiple jobs as a dive bar manager and beautician at a funeral home, Turquoise glamourises the pageant as the peak of her life and is determined to see her teenage daughter Kai crowned the next Miss Juneteenth, and damned if she won’t scrape every bit of cash together to do it.
Juneteenth, for those unfamiliar with the event, is a date of incredible significance to black communities across The United States. A portmanteau for June Nineteenth, Juneteenth commemorates the day in 1865 when Union Army general Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas to announce the abolishment of slavery within the Confederate States (a whole 2 years after President Abraham Lincoln first outlawed slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation.) In Miss Juneteenth, the pageant winner is not only celebrated by her community, but awarded a full scholarship to a historically black college of her choice. In a country where education at all levels often disproportionately favours high income and white families, a prize such as this is coveted and hard to come by.
The Miss Juneteenth pageant, much to Turquoise’s misfortune, not only acts as a program that nourishes and supports the future of young black women, but is a source of intense financial strain. Already struggling to pay bills with the money earned from her two jobs, the pageant’s registration fees and the cost of Kai’s dress becomes a point of constant contention. Attempts to lean on Kai’s father for financial support consistently fail and Turquoise is often forced to watch as the fruits of her labour begin to wither.
Despite the alluring comfort of a fully paid university scholarship and her mother’s insistence, Kai is almost entirely disinterested in being a pageant queen. Seeing how little the crown did for her own mother’s future, Kai is more interested in pursuing a position on her local dance team, spending time with her crush, and just generally enjoying her life as it is. Turquoise, knowing how easy it can be to slip into a life of constant hardship, tries to lead Kai in a more puritanical direction and it is often a source of tension and anguish between them. Throughout their moments of opposition, however, there are as many moments of tenderness and love between them as they tease, cuddle and play fight. These scenes where they simply exist together as mother and daughter are the film’s finest moments.
The pace of the film is rather slow, drawn out like the low Southern drawl of many of its characters. At times it can feel too lengthy, but each moment that made it past editing to the final cut has its place. Whether it’s Kai teaching her father a viral dance move or Turquoise enduring microaggressions from within the community, each moment gives Miss Juneteenth its uniqueness. In its approximately 100 minute run, Miss Juneteenth delicately tackles a multitude of social justice issues from the struggles of parenting, the ending of slavery and its continued aftershocks and racist legacy, and living on the fringe of poverty – but at no point do the lessons in this film feel like a lecture.
Peoples’ film makes no attempts to grandstand or present a fairytale narrative; it simply lets her characters be. Miss Juneteenth is a reflection of a common life that many POC communities may recognise and find small comfort in as they see parts of themselves represented on screen. And the power of Miss Juneteenth is not just its entirely black cast, but that the women are able to take centre stage in all their ordinary, unremarkable glory. It gives them a space to occupy wholeheartedly, to hold each other up and protect against the storms they weather.
Miss Juneteenth will be in select cinemas nationally from October 8th (excluding Victoria).