Sundance 2020: Mothers, Daughters and Their Journey to Finding Self In ‘Miss Juneteenth’

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Miss Juneteenth

The relationship between mothers and daughters can be complicated. The mother wants a future that is better, safer and more secure than what she had for her daughter. But, in her mother, the daughter sees the past, inspiration and connection to identity. However, what both can fail to see is how much they resemble each other in ways they don’t realize. With Miss Juneteenth, writer-director Channing Godfrey Peoples delves into this special dynamic between single mother Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie) and her teenaged daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze).

As the sole caretaker, Turquoise struggles to raise Kai while working fulltime at Wayman’s BBQ Lounge, and the local mortuary as a makeup artist. Wanting a way for Kai have better opportunities in the future, Turquoise signs her up for the Miss Juneteenth, pageant where the prize is a scholarship to the Historically Black Colleges and University (HBCU) of the winner’s choice. Despite Kai’s obvious lack of enthusiasm, Turquoise tries to convince her that it’s for her benefit, that she wants Kai to have the future Turquoise didn’t. Turquoise knows that as a Black girl – and later, a Black woman – Kai will have to fight for every achievement she makes, and Miss Juneteenth is one way to make things just a bit more easier.

Determined to have Kai be in the pageant, Turquoise takes extra shifts at Wayman’s and saves every cent she makes in tips to pay for the registration fee and ballgown. The pressure of her responsibilities weighs heavily on Turquoise, but she does her best not to show it to Kai. She never complains, and reassures Kai that she has everything taken care of. When Kai’s father, Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson) makes an appearance, it’s obvious that he and Turquoise have a complicated relationship, evidenced by her asking him to park away from the house so Kai doesn’t know when he sleeps over.

As part of the preparations for the final competition, contestants are instructed in the proper etiquette of handling cutlery during formal dinners, how to speak eloquently, walk with poise, and taught the historical significance of Juneteenth itself. Though the end result of the pageant is to award scholarships, it serves as a reminder of June 19th, 1865, the day those who were still enslaved in Texas, were made aware of the Emancipation Proclamation, which had granted African Americans their freedom two years prior.

As the 2004 winner, the pageant  was a defining experience for Turquoise, though not in the way she thinks. Throughout the film she is constantly adjusting her clothing, looking at herself in mirrors, straightening her posture around the pageant organizers, modulating her temperament and the way she speaks. In these moments Nicole Beharie shines. She makes these seemingly innocuous gestures translate a whole history of a woman accustomed to being judged.  They are unconscious actions of a woman always seeking the approval of her peers, as though it will somehow makeup for her never meeting and exceeding their expectations.

Miss Juneteenth

Even though Turquoise speaks in AAVE, she regularly corrects Kai when she does, telling her to speak properly. She chastises Kai for hanging out with her crush, and admonishes her for wearing inappropriately short skirts. Most women who’ve grown up with a Black mother have more than likely had these very same conversations. We were always reminded to be on our “P and Q’s”,  told to be aware of how we dressed and behaved, because others are always looking for any excuse to say something negative about us.

While trying to balance her finances, look after a teenaged daughter learning to speak her mind and form her own identity with each passing day, Turquoise also has to deal with the romantic attentions of Ronnie who as a mechanic is able to offer free services, smiles and the occasional empty promise, and Bacon (Akron Mason), her boss at the funeral home who tries to convince her that with the increased mortality rate of Black people (somehow I think that’s a jab at the Aamerican healthcare system and it’s treatment of Black people) he can offer her security, and more hours at the mortuary.

Both men are charming in their own way, but they don’t seem overly concerned with what Turquoise wants for herself. They don’t understand that though, she may be struggling to keep the lights on, Turquoise takes pride in being able to live her life on her terms.

One of the things I love about being part of the African Diaspora is the universal aspects of  some of our experiences, culture and identity. Even though Miss Juneteenth is set in small town Texas, there are many locations and instances that shows this, from the complicated relationships between mothers and daughters, prayer warriors forming a circle, to seeing bar patrons trash talking each other during a game of dominoes. Peoples shows the connection we have in celebrating the abolition of slavery – and independence from colonial rule in the case of Caribbean nations – , the steps our ancestors took to keep their freedom, the pride in having property we could call our own, and glorying in the things that make us, us, such as our skin and hair.

Miss Juneteenth

Beharie and Chikaeze are wonderful in their scenes together. They’re both very expressive with the way they use their bodies and facial expressions to convey every emotion felt by their characters. Seemingly simple gestures like the holding up of an index finger, an expression universally known as “The look” amongst the Black diaspora, or putting one had on the hip, carry A LOT of context and history. They allow us to say a lot without saying anything, and those who know this language know exactly what’s being said, not need for interpretation.

Peoples does a fine job of using dialogue and objects to connect the overall theme. In a yellow dress she tells us how legacies are passed down and changed from one generation to the next. During a discussion with her boss about him possibly selling the bar to pay for medical expenses, he tells her that he’s worked too hard to hold onto the one thing that he owns “free and clear”, which echoes the hope of former slaves having the chance to own their “40 acres and a mule”. There are a few minor quibbles I have with the film, such as pacing and certain elements such as Bacon’s pursuing of Turquoise being unnecessary, but overall the film and the performances are enjoyable, and the story relatable.

To many, Turquoise’s insistence that Kai recite “Phenomenal Woman” during the pageant may seem like a way for her to vicariously live through Kai and a way to have a second chance, and it may have been in a sense, but that wasn’t the only reason. I think she wanted Kai to understand why Miss Juneteenth meant so much to her. As Maya Angelou states in the poem, she was celebrating her womanhood. Her Blackness, the beauty of what it means to embrace that wholly, but this message got lost in her constant fretting and actions such as flat-ironing Kai’s hair as a way to make her seem more presentable.

Like most adults Turquoise believes that Kai’s reticence means she’s not listening, but when Kai comes out and with her hair in an afro, starts to dance as she recites those famous words, Turquoise realizes that Kai has always been listening and understood. Just as she inspired her daughter, Kai has inspired her mother to live in her truth and reach for her own goals, because her future is what she makes of it, which at it’s core, is also the purpose of celebrating Juneteenth.

Rating: 7/10