Miss Juneteenth August 7, 2020
1 Hr., 43 Mins.
n 2004, Fort Worth native Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie) won the local Miss Juneteenth beauty pageant. For generations, the competition has acted as something of a conduit to a bright future. In addition to getting a crown, the honoree receives a full scholarship to a historically Black college or university of their choice. At one point in Miss Juneteenth
(2020), the gentle, stirring movie which places Turquoise at its center,
new competitors walk through a quasi-hall of fame. Some of their forebears have gone on to be civil rights attorneys, neurosurgeons. “We are expecting greatness,” an escort (Phyllis Cicero) says.
Before she could see through any of her dreams, though, life got in Turquoise’s way. Shortly after the win, she fell pregnant with her daughter, Kai (Alexis Chikaeze). In the years since, she has kept her ambitions on the back burner to ensure Kai’s needs are met, working two pretty thankless jobs at a bar and a mortuary. Turquoise has long been looked down on by many of her neighborhood's residents. She briefly worked as a stripper a little after giving birth to make ends meet. And although she still is on good terms with Kai’s headlong, gambling father Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson), she hasn’t committed to him in the long-term largely as a kind of act of self-preservation.
The annual Miss Juneteenth pageant is coming up as the film is opening. Turquoise essentially forces Kai to compete, despite knowing that it is perhaps the last thing she would like to do. Kai wants to spend time with her new boyfriend and practice her dancing — a hobby she clearly has a knack for. Turquoise is plenty aware of a lot of the contest’s silliness. Like any beauty pageant, it adheres to conservative beauty standards and typically rewards conformity more than it does originality. Is it that important to learn how to formally dine, speak with your vowels unnaturally rounded? (One cannot deny the poignancy of its reason for existence, though: In honor of the title holiday, which commemorates the day in 1865 on which Texas slaves were told they were free, the event is meant to work as a tribute to all the Black women who were not able to see through their full potential in part as a result of slavery.)
For Turquoise, a potential win by Kai is too powerful a possibility to let slip. Her daughter could realize the trajectory she so badly wanted for herself. Win the pageant, get the scholarship, go to a four-year university, have an ideal, satisfying career. Turquoise is no exception to the age-old understanding that a parent so often wants their child to live the dream they couldn’t see to fruition themselves. She doesn’t want her daughter to struggle as she has. It is particularly important to her that Kai read aloud, for her “talent,” Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” (1978), just like she did in 2004. (Kai will, with some hesitation, do as her mother says, though, movingly, puts her own spin on the reading during the film’s last act.)
Whether Kai actually wins the Miss Juneteenth crown eventually comes secondary, almost, in the film. This is more so a study of a mother-daughter relationship, and how an event pushes both women to have an even greater appreciation of the other. (Even though they aren’t given as much screen time, first-time writer-director Channing Godfrey Peoples also evocatively develops Turquoise’s complicated romance with her baby father and her fraught relationship with her devoutly religious mother, who is dealing with alcoholism.) Turquoise seems on track to be the sort of well-meaning but ultimately destructive mother who puts so much pressure on her child to succeed in her way that she fails to recognize her individuality. And Kai, for a time, seems the young rebel heart who will thoughtlessly push back, not fully understanding
where her mother is coming from until years later, with some distance.
But as guided by Peoples, in her feature debut, we watch both women convincingly grow emotionally in real time. Her subtle writing tells us plenty without divulging too much; the emotionally vivid performances from Beharie and Chikaeze beautifully convey the scars of a painful coming of age and an ever-familiar combination of youthful optimism and frustration, respectively. There comes a moment in Miss Juneteenth where we can sense Kai shifting in her thinking — knowing that while this competition doesn’t mean much to her, her even entertaining it in contrast means the world to her mother, whom she knows has sacrificed a lot for her. Though it takes her a while, Turquoise, upon seeing Kai’s interpretation of “Phenomenal Woman,” comes to understand that just because her daughter doesn’t want what she wants to a T doesn’t make her interests and desires any less than.
The movie, spoiler alert, doesn’t end with Kai earning the crown. But it goes somewhere, I think, more moving. Not only does Turquoise and Kai’s bond tighten — the former, after years of hardship, is finally given what appears to be a real second chance. It could change everything for the better. Miss Juneteenth, in stride with “Phenomenal Woman,” functions as a joyous celebration of these women. Its beauty lies in how it appreciates who they authentically are, with less of an emphasis on what they have accomplished, or how they complement the wants of another. Miss Juneteenth is an intimate, lived-in drama. B+