Review: 'Miss Juneteenth' is a Moving Portrayal of Black Motherhood
by Zofia Wijaszka
June 19, 2020
Often, when a beauty pageant is mentioned, the first thing that comes to mind is the film Miss Congeniality. Young white women dominate beauty contests around the world. But Miss Black America, Miss Black USA, and other similar competitions have been celebrating Black beauty, culture, and identity for more than half a century. This is where Channing Godfrey Peoples steps in with her first feature, a drama titled Miss Juneteenth. The film first premiered at Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. The director, also known as a writer for the TV series "Queen Sugar" or for her 2013 short film, Red, shines a genuine light on Black motherhood, the Miss Juneteenth pageant, and mother/daughter relationship in this heart-gripping drama.
Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie), a single mother and a former beauty queen living Fort Worth, Texas, works all kinds of jobs while also raising her teenage daughter, Kai (Alexis Chikaeze). Kai's father – Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson), a loving yet somewhat unreliable man, often comes and goes, leaving the majority of parenting duties to Turquoise. The hard-working woman has one dream. She does everything she can so Kai can participate in Miss Juneteenth beauty pageant, where she also competed and won. The teenager reluctantly agrees to attend. Sadly, she is often a victim of jokes from the other participants who comment on her curly hair that is not pressed like the other girls, or her clothing. But with its extraordinary story, Miss Juneteenth displays a mother and daughter's journey to growth, empowerment, and strength.
While we experience Kai's efforts and want to see her win, Peoples mainly focuses on Turquoise. We watch her struggle with multiple jobs, yet she's still unable to pay all the bills because of Miss Juneteenth's fees. The director graces us with the raw, emotional, and incredibly touching portrayal of Black motherhood in a small Texas town. There are no stereotypes we often see in films by white filmmakers. Alternatively, we're given a stunning story honoring Black women, embellished with a charismatic duo of Beharie and Chikaeze. We observe Turquoise's scuffles, and we end up cheering for her the most. She is a mother but also a former beauty pageant queen, and a strong woman. While the other queens became important women, Turquoise focused on her daughter first and foremost. There is one scene that grips my heart where Turquoise sits on the stairs in front of her home with a cigarette in hand, in cowboy shoes, and a red dress. She seems to be reflecting on the day that came and went. A sparkling tiara of a beauty queen prides itself on her head. A former Miss Juneteenth is now in deep thought. What is she thinking about? Is it about Kai? Or maybe her beauty pageant days? The scene is deeply empyreal, fleeting yet so substantial it remains in the memory of the audience. I'm not surprised that this captured moment became the official poster for Miss Juneteenth.
As Turquoise barely makes ends meet, Kai struggles with the contest. Through her character's prism, the audience learns the true history of Miss Juneteenth and its immense significance for the Black community in Texas and all around the States. Miss Juneteenth is not an ordinary pageant. It's a celebration of Black beauty, culture, tradition, and, at the same time, the date. Also called "Freedom Day", on June 19th 1865, the slaves working in Texas were finally freed (after slavery was abolished two years earlier). Participating in Miss Juneteenth is an honor where all young Black women learn proper etiquette, manners, and celebrate their history and legacy. The winner gets a stipend to study at the school of their choice. The audience wants to see Kai win. Yet at the same time, we want to absorb all the knowledge about Miss Juneteenth provided.
Channing Godfrey Peoples did a phenomenal job with casting these roles. Beharie is ethereal, emotional, and dazzling in her role as Turquoise. Depicting a raw, imperfect version of motherhood, she showcases her outstanding talent and charisma. In my opinion, Beharie delivers an Oscar-worthy performance. She can also be seen in Hulu series "Little Fires Everywhere", where she appeared for a fleeting moment as Madeline Ryan alongside Jesse Williams. Together with Chikaeze, they are the essence of Miss Juneteenth. In her acting debut, this young actress is charming as a rebellious Kai. In one of the final scenes, in the moment of transformation, she shines the brightest.
When the audience waits for her ultimate performance during the pageant, Kai takes off her dress, changes into dark clothing, and sprays her straighten hair. After being a polite young woman in a beautiful, bright yellow dress, it's time for the real, authentic, curly-haired Kai. The girl performs a modernized version of Maya Angelou's "Phenomenal Woman" poem and dances to its rhythm. When she receives well-deserved applause, we can see Turquoise's proud face in the crowd. The traditions of the past meet the contemporary thanks to Kai's performance. It's the moment where a mother fully comprehends her daughter's passion.
Thanks to Peoples' amazing talent of storytelling and selecting a remarkable cast, Miss Juneteenth already lands in my Top 3 films from this year so far. She paints an authentic, stunning, emotional picture of Black motherhood, womanhood, beauty contests, and a bond between mother and daughter. The director should be extremely proud of her feature debut. The film charms you from the very beginning, and you want to explore Jones' family, you want to see Kai win and Turquoise to be proud of being the wonderful mother that she certainly is. As a white woman born and raised in Poland, I will never fully comprehend certain things in Miss Juneteenth, and I'm aware of that. However, I'm so glad I can express my love and adoration for the director, the cast, and the fascinating story that Miss Juneteenth tells.
As the film premieres on-demand and in select theaters on the same day as Juneteenth this year, I highly recommend watching it. You'll be amazed by the history of the Black beauty pageant, vibrant characters, and mother/daughter bond that grows, showcasing one of the most empowering pictures of womanhood in film.
Zofia's Rating: 5 out of 5
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