“Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.”
Channing Godfrey Peoples’s (Queen Sugar) debut feature Miss Juneteenth begins with the sound of the Black National Anthem. A woman onscreen is tenderly holding a pageant crown and remembering when, as a teenager, she won the local “Miss Juneteenth” pageant and scholarship.
It’s clear that Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie, Little Fires Everywhere) was a stunning, vivacious teenager, but life hasn’t turned out the way she hoped. She hasn’t become a doctor, civil rights activist, or politician’s wife, like some other pageant winners. She never took that scholarship, and instead works waitressing and doing cosmetics at the mortuary, which doesn’t always pay enough to keep the lights on.
Now she places her frustrated hopes in her newly fifteen-year-old daughter Kai (newcomer Alexis Chikaeze). Who, it’s clear, has very different interests than winning a beauty pageant to please her mom!
This movie not only held my attention captive, but was running through my mind for days after. Peoples should be so proud of her very first movie; her directing was clear, patient, and deeply grounded. Her storytelling resonates at a bone-deep level. And, like every excellent movie, it’s clear Miss Juneteenth was a deeply loved, ensemble effort.
From the striking costume and hair design to the perfect, heartfelt, Texan soundtrack, to the spot-on cast (especially the stunning Beharie in the leading role), all its elements weave together beautifully for a touching experience that’s thought provoking but still totally easy to watch.
Something that really struck home for me was that the movie is set in Fort Worth, Texas, a city where I spent half my childhood summers. My parents used to pile us into the minivan and make the two-day drive from eastern North Carolina to Fort Worth to visit my aunt, uncle, and cousins. Their pristine house was at the end of a cul-de-sac. The neighborhood was quiet and tree-lined. My aunt and uncle were well-off flight attendants and homeschooled my cousins. My memories of Fort Worth don’t really look anything like the BBQ joints, laundromats, or auto shops of Miss Juneteenth, and I’m sure it’s because my family there was white and middle class.
Very few characters in the movie own anything of much value, which is a huge theme in the movie. It’s a striking exploration of what agonizing decisions cash-poor folks have to make that middle and upper class folks are never faced with. It’s a thought experiment on what it means to own something, free and clear, instead of constantly borrowing, renting, and scraping to get by. It’s a treatise on how hopes and dreams are generational and communal; spilling down from mother, to daughter, to granddaughter.
It’s a movie about Black characters, made by an incredible Black cast and crew, but certainly a movie that anyone can and should watch, whether it reflects your family’s experience or is a window into a totally different culture.
2020 is quite a year for a movie like Miss Juneteenth to be birthed into the world. I watched it in my living room the night it released to streaming platforms, on Juneteenth. This has turned into a year where many white people in the US are learning about this African American holiday for the very first time, despite it being celebrated in Texas since 1865.
For the past few months, people all over the world have been reckoning with the ongoing legacy of oppression endured by Black Americans. Folks are storming the streets and setting up camp on government property, demanding an end to ongoing police brutality. Modern civil rights activists are toppling statues of confederate generals, proposing legislation to their local representatives, marching across bridges, and leading teach-ins for new allies.
A lot of folks, some for the first time, are banding together to interrogate what the “American Dream” really means. Who’s it for? Who set the bar in the first place? Who is being excluded?
If all these musings make Miss Juneteenth sound too big and lofty for a movie night, don’t worry. Grab your dinner, snuggle next to your roomie or even your cat, and just let yourself get lost in this sweet, accessible, raw family drama about a woman figuring out how to love her teen daughter and how to love herself. I think that kind of movie might be the kind of good-feels, make-your-soul-better movie that we could all use right now!