Like many of you who subscribe to streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime, I have recently been binging movies and documentaries from their Black Lives Matter pages that are promoting Black stories and storytellers. I stumbled upon “Miss Juneteenth” while perusing Amazon Prime — a common routine of mine. The film caught my attention, especially in light of the recent petitions circulating about making Juneteenth a national holiday.
Upon reading the title of the movie, my initial reaction was confusion: “Is this a movie about a beauty pageant or a movie about racism?” Turns out the answer is both! While the movie is themed around the historical importance of Juneteenth in the Black community, the plot revolves around the lives of a strict yet loving, determined, working-class single mother, Turquoise Jones, and her daughter Kai. Kai, a headstrong 15-year-old with a passion for dance, prepares to participate in the coveted “Miss Juneteenth” scholarship pageant, in which the winner receives a full scholarship to any historically black college or university (HBCU) of her choice. As a previous winner herself, Turquoise is desperate for Kai to participate and win the pageant so that Kai can have a better future than her mother. While other former winners went on to become civil rights attorneys, neurosurgeons and wives of congressmen, Turquoise became pregnant with Kai and ended up attending a state college. Overall, the movie successfully tackles adversities faced by Black Americans in pursuit of the “American Dream,” such as the racist reputation behind bank loans, and adversities faced by Black women, such as Eurocentric beauty standards.
Whether it is cleaning toilets at a bar, applying lipstick to corpses at a funeral home, selling her wedding ring or working at a strip club, there is nothing Turquoise will not do for her daughter in order to keep the lights on in their house and help Kai prepare for the pageant. It’s clear, however, that life has dealt Turquoise and Kai a pretty rotten hand: the compounded factors of Turquoise’s drunkard mother, Kai’s undependable father and their financial struggles mean Turquoise and Kai have to make certain sacrifices, even if it means preventing Kai from joining the dance team and having a boyfriend. Motivated by her aspirations for a better life, Turquoise perseveres against all odds, even when her own boss, Wayman, a prominent Black figure in her community, tells her that “Ain’t no American Dream for Black folks.”
Written and directed by Channing Godfrey Peoples, “Miss Juneteenth” is an incredibly tender and powerful film that showcases the struggles of a single mom raising her 15-year-old daughter. Between their short-lived mother-daughter squabbles, Kai and Turquoise support each other, and Turquoise proves to be a beautiful role model for Kai, even though Turquoise herself grew up with an abusive alcoholic mother who raised her with outdated beliefs such as “looks is all a woman needs.” In spite of her troubled upbringing, Turquoise raises Kai to be an empowered young woman who prioritizes education. Nonetheless, we see their generational gap when Turquoise forces Kai to change out of a short skirt to avoid any of the “Miss Juneteenth” organizers seeing her in provocative clothing. Kai is quick to point out the hypocrisy of her mother’s words by commenting on the length of Turquoises’s own shorts.
The film also pushes back against Eurocentric beauty standards, as demonstrated in a pivotal scene in which (spoiler alert!) Kai sprays her hair with water to bring out her natural curls at the pageant, even after her mother went through the effort of straightening it. Furthermore, for her talent in the pageant, Kai raps Maya Angelou’s poem, “Phenomenal Woman,” while dancing to a hip-hop beat track in the background. “Phenomenal Woman” emphasizes women taking pride in their individuality and feeling confident in their own skin despite what society deems conventionally beautiful. Kai accurately portrays the poem’s relevant message about body positivity and self-love by embracing her natural hair and Blackness during a pageant meant for Black adolescent girls to take pride in their beauty.
Beyond the compelling and impressive screenplay, the director of photography Daniel Patterson and the production designer Olivia Peebles did a phenomenal job depicting the lifestyles of those in Fort Worth, Texas through the seamless panoramic shots of Turquoise and Kai’s neighborhood as the movie transitions between scenes and casual details on set such as a fly buzzing around or the sweat shining on the actors that made the audience feel the June Texas heat through the television screen. One of my favorite shots of the entire film is when we see Turquoise smoking a cigarette while wearing her “Miss Juneteenth” tiara after an important turning point in her love life.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of the movie was the smooth incorporation of informative dialogue about Juneteenth and how Peoples showed Kai’s and Turquoise’s differing reactions to racism in America as part of two separate generations. While the “Miss Juneteenth” pageant is a competitive setting — with its strict participation requirements including grade minimums, a positive community reputation and perfect attendance — the organizers never miss an opportunity to educate the girls on the history of Juneteenth. While Kai initially shrugs off this information and prefers to stare at her phone, Turquoise urges her to pay attention. We eventually see Kai embrace her Black heritage through her impressive performance of “Phenomenal Woman.”
In conclusion, I highly recommend “Miss Juneteenth” because of the powerful representation of the Black community in America, the feminist message, the emphasis on natural beauty, the casual yet impactful cinematography and Kai’s coming-of-age story. Not to mention, there is a hilarious scene in which Kai attempts to teach her mother and her father Ronnie how to “hit the woah” (a popular internet hip hop dance trend). I would almost recommend this film based on that one scene alone. Thankfully, Peoples gave plenty of additional reasons to see “Miss Juneteenth,” her directorial debut.
Contact Anika Jain at anikajain ‘at’ sfhs.com.