Film & Television

‘Miss Juneteenth’ — A Tale of Two
Phenomenal Women

Two weeks ago, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, President Trump boasted that in postponing his Tulsa rally, “I did something good: I made Juneteenth very famous. It’s actually an important event, an important time. But nobody had ever heard of it.” I beg to disagree. I’m a white woman who grew up nearly 2,000 miles from Texas, the site of the first Juneteenth, in 1865, and I’ve heard of it. That said, it certainly hasn’t been given its due in history books, one of many oversights the current Black Lives Matter movement may help correct.

On June 19th, two and a half years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, a troop of Union soldiers, led by Major General Granger, landed at Galveston. Granger proceeded to read General Order Number 3: “The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.” Although actual freedom and equity remained (and remain) a struggle, the Juneteenth holiday commemorates the end of slavery.

In Fort Worth, where writer-director Channing Godfrey Peoples grew up, Juneteenth is traditionally celebrated by the Black community with parties, parades, and a beauty pageant, in which one young African American woman wins a full scholarship to college. It’s Peoples’s memories of all this that inspired her first feature film, the sensitive, moving, and ultimately uplifting mother-daughter story of Miss Juneteenth.

Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie, phenomenal) is the single mother of teenage daughter Kai (equally phenomenal newcomer Alexis Chikaeze). Turquoise works at a barbecue lounge, Wayman’s, and moonlights as a makeup artist for a local funeral parlor. She is reminded — many times each day by the well-meaning and sometimes not-so-well-meaning — that she was crowned Miss Juneteenth in 2004. She never got to finish school, we soon realize, because she became pregnant. This is problematic. Pageant winners are held up as the pinnacle of black women. They go on to be doctors, civil rights attorneys, and congressmen’s wives. They do not drop out of school to have babies.

No matter how things have turned out, Turquoise still believes that the Miss Juneteenth pageant represents the promise of a better life. “I felt like I finally had a chance. My life could have been different if I had stuck with it,” she tells Kai. “That’s what I want for you.” Kai, who would rather audition for her school’s dance team and hang out with her boyfriend, half-heartedly prepares to compete.


With the pageant and its various rituals (etiquette lessons, museum visits, talent practice, dress rehearsal) setting the pace for the film, much of the drama derives from Turquoise’s financial challenges. There are entry fees to cover and an $800 ball gown, along with overdue bills and “Final Notice” shutoff threats from utility companies. Kai’s father, Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson), with whom she still shares a part-time but deeply sensuous relationship, promises but never delivers financial assistance. In fact, when he’s arrested for poaching, Turquoise has to find bail money for him. 

Other people in Turquoise’s life are simultaneously supportive and needy. Her mother, a devout evangelical, is quick to lecture her for missing church, but has to be put to bed after drinking too much. The owner of Wayman’s counts on her, but doesn’t pay her enough. The owner of the thriving mortuary offers to get her “off her feet” and make her his “first lady.” Whenever anyone questions how she’s handling her burdens, she dismissively says, “I get by” or “I make it work.” But we know, as she does, that it’s a precarious balancing act.

Turquoise urges Kai to take Miss Juneteenth seriously. Together, they rehearse the poem that helped Turquoise win the crown 15 years earlier, “Phenomenal Woman,” by Maya Angelou. 

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.

Kai is less than enthusiastic.

On the surface, Miss Juneteenth resembles other pageant films in which we’re encouraged to root for an underdog, like Little Miss Sunshine (2006), Miss Congeniality (2000), Miss Firecracker (1989), and the more recent Dumplin (2018). What makes it stand out, however, is the ease and grace with which Peoples insinuates other, more resonant themes into her story. 

For example, and certainly timely, Peoples subtly addresses racial disparities. The owner of the funeral home (Akron Watson) is able to expand his business and Turquoise wonders at his ability to get more investment money from white men. He assures her that they know a winning proposal when they see one; there will always be bodies to bury. The owner of Wayman’s (Marcus M. Mauldin), on the other hand, tells her that there “ain’t no American dream for Black folks.” In fact, he feels so threatened that he carries the deed to his bar with him at all times. When Ronnie is arrested, he’s told that he can pay off the $5,000 fine by working in the fields, “like we’re back in the slave days.”

And, of course, the plight of the single mother is front and center throughout. Turquoise is raising her daughter with a firm but never cruel hand, determined that Kai will have the opportunities she missed out on. Kai is deeply bonded to her mom, but eager to become her own person, which sometimes leads to acting out, albeit not too dramatically. “Mom, you always embarrass me!” is a line that will be all too familiar to any and every mother. All of Peoples’s dialogue is heartfelt and true; the film is beautifully written.

It’s impossible not to want more for Turquoise even as she pursues the same for her daughter. Their relationship is at the center of Miss Juneteenth. No matter how hard Turquoise tries, it’s fairly obvious early on that the chances of Kai’s being crowned are slim to none. The pageant is filled with girls who are better dressed, better coiffed, and more ladylike. Kai has a hand-me-down gown and unruly hair; can’t figure out which fork to use for what course; and — assuming she can manage to memorize it — her rehearsed delivery of Angelou’s poem is lackluster, to say the least. Frustrated but still shining with hope, Turquoise takes the impromptu living room stage and shows her how to do it.

The chemistry between Beharie and Chikaeze is right on. Turquoise and Kai rely on each other; they both love Ronnie, but know they can’t depend on him; they can only depend on each other. Turquoise wants a better life for Kai. Kai doesn’t want to compete, but she does want to win for her mother, a goal she may have figured out too late.

In the end, both women find a way to realize their dreams in their own way. They are both works in progress. But they are both phenomenal women.

I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need of my care,
‘Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.


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