Miss Juneteenth is both an intimate illustration of a mother’s love and a much-needed education on the struggles facing the working-class black community in the modern US.
Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie) was once a bona fide beauty queen, crowned Miss Juneteenth of Fort Worth, Texas as a teenager. The film follows her struggle to have her reluctant daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) take the same title and, with it, a ticket to a “better life”. In some ways, Turquoise is all of us: she’s a mother, doing her best to make ends meet and provide the best for her child. However, in many ways, Turquoise is representative of a struggle that so many of us are privileged enough to never understand. Surviving in a society where the odds are stacked against them, Turquoise, Kai and the wider cast shine a harsh light on the realities of life as a black, working class American.
Juneteenth (the commemoration of the emancipation of Texas Slaves on June 19th 1865) is, shamefully, a nationwide celebration that has only recently been drawn into the consciousness of the white, privileged mind. In the wake of the BLM movement, when the struggles of the black community are so abundantly clear, Miss Juneteenth, interwoven with tenderness and light comedy, highlights the need for prison reform, the forced assimilation to white upper class culture and, perhaps most pointedly, the inspiring strength of an independent woman.
Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson), Kai’s father and on-again-off-again partner of Turquoise, is both representative of the victims of institutionalised racism and, frankly, bitterly disappointing. He does care for his daughter and there’s a gentleness to his character. However, he consistently lets his family down, cleverly reflected in the recurrent metaphor of the broken-down truck. Ronnie, a mechanic, fixes Turquoise’s truck, which works for a while and invariably fails again. Ronnie repeatedly fails to come through, despite his promises to “do right by ya’ll this time”. It makes you question, though, how much of Ronnie’s disappointing behaviour is entirely a character flaw and how much is the result of societal racism.
Ronnie is arrested and jailed for a fishing crime and, as Turquoise can’t afford his bail, the courts offer him the opportunity to work for his bail in the fields, an uncomfortable, yet blatant indication of the use of racially biased prison systems to support modern day slavery. He doesn’t pay for Kai’s pageant dress, as he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to buy his own workshop and own his business, a privilege that is, proportionally, seldom afforded to black people. As Wayman (Marcus M. Mauldin) states, “There ain’t no American Dream for black folks; we gotta hold on to what we got”.
The pageant itself is, at best, problematic. The hopeful crowned Miss Juneteenth will win a scholarship to a historically black college and stands as a celebratory symbol of black history. However, this powerful message is overshadowed by the apparent necessity of assimilating to middle class white culture in order to obtain the prize. Kai’s natural curls are straightened, and her worth is defined by her knowledge of salad forks and soups spoons in the absurd etiquette classes. Achievement is aligned by the adherence to a version of societal success, an image inherently swayed by racial bias.
Turquoise is a pillar of strength in the film. Her sacrifice and commitment to her child’s future is both inspiring and painful. The victim of judgement and prejudice as a teenage mother, Turquoise is determined that Kai does not become a statistic, she tells Ronnie “I’m gonna make sure that she’s something we ain’t; she’s my dream now”.
Miss Juneteenth, paralleled with its themes of racial injustice and oppression, is, at its heart, the story of a mother doing her best in a society that is not built for her. What is most inspiring and refreshing about the film is her rejection of childhood friend Bacon (Akron Watson). When presented with an upstanding, successful man, who promises to take care of her, Turquoise refuses the fairy tale. She doesn’t need saving; as she so saliently tells him; “You’re a good man, I just want something for myself”.
Miss Juneteenth is now available to watch.
STREAM MISS JUNETEENTH:
Don’t miss our monthly updates with film news, movie-inspired recipes and exclusive content! You’ll only hear from us once a month. #nospam