Miss Juneteenth is a delicate, gentle film arriving at a defining moment in American discourse surrounding race.
Miss Juneteenth, the debut directorial feature of Channing Godfrey Peoples, could hardly come at a more important moment for the black community, and her authentic drama about an African American mother concerned for her daughter’s future is rather emblematic of the community’s constant struggle to establish a seat at the table. Despite the family’s electric supply having been cut off, Turquoise (Nicole Beharie) feels that her money would be better spent on enrolling her daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) in the state’s greatly-renowned ‘Miss Juneteenth’ pageant, named after the anniversary of slaves’ emancipation in America (the historical date specifically refers to the Texas-based proclamation on June 19, 1865). Although the film deals with the familiar trope of a former pageant queen pushing her reluctant daughter to follow in her footsteps, played out in fairly generic terms most recently in 2018’s Dumplin’, the relationship between mother and daughter here is refreshingly adult. It’s a credit to the natural abilities of Beharie and Chikaeze that their connection feels so established, Beharie affording Turquoise’s hard-edged maternal approach plenty of relatability. As for the pageant itself, it celebrates etiquette and elegance as ideals of femininity, giving its contestants familiar tasks such as exhibiting good table manners, and culminating in a talent show. While Peoples’ script addresses the rigidity of tradition and conservatism, and the institutional politics that comes with contests like these, it isn’t overly judgmental about the people who cherish them. Instead, it finds ways to show catharsis and learning, Kai’s interpretation of the Maya Angelou poem ‘Phenomenal Woman,’ which famously promotes the idea of self-empowerment, helping to perpetuate a positive message about using hardship as a way to educate and move forward. Miss Juneteenth‘s discussion around the lack of opportunity too many face feels particularly resonant, and if it doesn’t register in the current tenor of righteous anger that has captured so many, it represents a gentler look at ways to promote and encourage racial equality through one’s own actions.
Published as part of June 2020’s Before We Vanish.