Akron Watson, Alexis Chikaeze, beauty pageants, Channing Godfrey Peoples, drama, Kendrick Sampson, Liz Mikel, Lori Hayes, Marcus M. Mauldin, Miss Juneteenth, movies, Nicole Beharie, reviews
January 16, 2021
by Carla Hay
Directed by Channing Godfrey Peoples
Culture Representation: Taking place in Fort Worth, Texas, the drama “Miss Juneteenth” features a predominantly African American cast (with a few white people and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: A former Miss Juneteenth beauty pageant winner, who has dead-end jobs and is struggling financially, pressures her reluctant teenage daughter to enter the same contest so that the daughter can have a chance to win college scholarship money.
Culture Audience: “Miss Juneteenth” will appeal to people who are interested in well-acted and realistic dramas about how people deal with regrets over some of their life choices.
Several reality TV shows about beauty pageants with underage girls as contestants have exposed what is common knowledge in the pageant world: These kiddie pageants really aren’t about the children. These pageants are about the adults who want to show off their children and get bragging rights and prize money if their kids win these contests.
The dramatic film “Miss Juneteenth” has a beauty pageant for teenage girls as the driving force behind much of the characters’ actions. But the movie goes deeper than just the superficial aspects of preparing for this contest. “Miss Juneteenth,” anchored by a standout performance by Nicole Beharie, is a story about a mother with broken dreams who’s living vicariously through her daughter to try to recapture those dreams and “do over” certain parts of her life.
In “Miss Juneteenth” (the feature-film debut of writer/director Channing Godfrey Peoples), Beharie portrays Turquoise Jones, who is floundering in all aspects of her life in her hometown of Forth Worth, Texas. Turquoise’s main job is working as a bartender at a dive bar called Wayman’s, named after its no-nonsense owner Wayman (played by Marcus M. Mauldin), who considers Turquoise to be his most reliable and trusteed employee. In the beginning of the film, it’s shown that Turquoise’s job at the bar also entails janitor duties and being the bar’s unofficial manager who keeps track of the business revenue.
As Turquoise cleans a toilet in one of the bar’s bathrooms, one of her co-workers named Betty Ray (played by Liz Mikel) watches her and comments: “I’ll never get over seeing Miss Juneteenth cleaning toilets … You practically running this bar.” Turquoise is good enough at her job as a bartender that it’s shown early on in the movie that she can make $800 in tips in one night.
Turquoise also occasionally works part-time as a mortuary assistant at Baker Funeral Home, where she prepares bodies for funerals by doing their makeup. Her mortuary boss, Bacon Baker (played by Akron Watson), whose family owns the business, is a bachelor who makes it clear that he’s attracted to Turquoise and is interested in dating her. Bacon doesn’t cross the line into blatant sexual harassment, and he’s respectful of Turquoise’s wishes to keep their relationship strictly platonic. In an early scene in the movie, Bacon tells Turquoise the bad news that business has been slow at the funeral home, so he’s going to have to reduce her work hours.
The timing couldn’t be worse for Turquoise, because she’s been preoccupied with having her teenage daughter Kai (played by Alexis Chikaeze) enter the upcoming Miss Juneteenth beauty pageant. The costs for the Miss Juneteenth pageant require a certain amount of money that Turquoise knows will break her household budget. Kai, who is 14 and turns 15 years old during the course of the story, is vivacious, intuitive and slightly rebellious.
Kai isn’t completely enthusiastic about the pageant, which is a contest that means more to Turquoise than it means to Kai. However, Kai goes along with what her mother wants because she wants to make her mother happy. As time goes on, Kai sees how much her mother is willing to sacrifice in order to get Kai in the pageant.
Turquoise wants Kai to win the contest because of the pageant’s grand prize: scholarship money to attend a historically black college or university. But Turquoise also has ulterior motives, which have more to do with herself than with Kai. Turquoise is a former Miss Juneteenth winner who didn’t live up to her expected potential. And although Turquoise never says it out loud, it becomes obvious that Turquoise wants to redeem herself, through her daughter Kai, in the Miss Juneteenth pageant.
It’s briefly explained in the movie what Juneteenth is, for people who don’t know the historical significance to African Americans. Juneteenth celebrates June 19, 1865: the date that African Americans in Texas found out that they were freed slaves—two years after the Emancipation Proclamation made slavery illegal in the United States. Juneteenth is a reminder of the importance of people not only having civil rights but also knowing about civil rights and living it.
Turquoise was a Miss Juneteenth winner in 2004. What happened to her since then isn’t revealed all at once in the movie, but it’s spoken about in bits and pieces, in the way that people speak about things that they’re slightly ashamed of in their past. Turquoise was headed to college and was going to use the Miss Juneteenth scholarship money for her university tuition. But at some point, Turquoise got pregnant with Kai. Turquoise abandoned her college plans, and she married Kai’s father Ronnie (played by Kendrick Sampson), who ended up having a lot of personal struggles with menial jobs and an arrest record.
The marriage fell apart. Ronnie and Turquoise separated, but haven’t gone through with a divorce. It isn’t really made clear when Ronnie and Turquoise split up, but at some point, he became a deadbeat dad. Out of financial desperation, Turquoise became a stripper—something she’s not proud of, but she doesn’t deny it when other people remind her or when Kai finds out in a humiliating way.
Turquoise’s on-again/off-again relationship with Ronnie is complicated, because she and Ronnie have recently begun sleeping together again, but they are still living in separate homes. Kai notices that her father has been sleeping over in Turquoise’s bedroom, and eventually Turquoise and Ronnie let it be known that they might be getting back together permanently. Turquoise wants to take things slow, because it’s implied that Ronnie did a lot of things in the past to emotionally hurt her, and she’s gradually giving him a chance to earn back her trust.
Ronnie currently works as a mechanic and seems to be trying to get his life back on track. In in an early scene in the movie, he promises Turquoise that he’s going to “do right” by her and Kai this time. When Ronnie finds out that Turquoise wants Kai to be in the Miss Juneteenth pageant, he doesn’t hesitate to give Turquoise some cash to help out with the expenses.
Turquoise appreciates Ronnie’s generosity, but the money that she gets from Ronnie isn’t enough to cover all the pageant costs. Turquoise’s level of obsession with the Miss Juneteenth pageant becomes very apparent when she has a choice of paying her house’s electricity bill (which is already overdue) or paying the pageant entry fee. Turquoise is also adamant that Kai should have a “fancy” new dress from one of the top boutiques in the area, not a previously owned dress or a dress from a discount store.
Turquoise chooses not to pay the electricity bill, in order to pay the pageant entry fee. And the house’s electricity is turned off on (of all days) Kai’s 15th birthday. Kai is upset, but Turquoise tries to put a positive spin on this turn of events and assures Kai that their lack of electricity is only temporary. Later in the movie, Turquoise runs into other financial problems that affect her ability to pay for certain things.
Why is Turquoise so fixated on this pageant? What is she trying to prove? As the story goes on, it becomes apparent that she’s having an early mid-life crisis. Turquoise is regretting a lot of decisions that she made her teens and 20s, and she feeling that she’s disappointed herself and others who had high hopes for Turquoise. The Miss Juneteenth pageant and the scholarship money that she won represented Turquoise’s ticket to a better life. And now, she feels like she really blew it.
And to make it worse for Turquoise, she’s still stuck in her hometown, where she feels like too many people know how much of a “failure” she turned out to be. She’s reminded of it in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. For example, when Turquoise and Kai go to a sign-up table to enter the Miss Juneteenth Pageant, Turquoise encounters a snooty woman named Clarissa (played by Lisha Hackney), who is on the pageant committee but who isn’t a judge.
Clarissa makes a snide comment that if Kai wins, hopefully Kai will actually be able to use the scholarship prize. There’s obvious tension between Turquoise and Clarissa. And so, it comes as no surprise when Turquoise tells Kai that Clarissa was in the same 2004 Miss Juneteenth Pageant that Turquoise won. It seems that Clarissa still holds a grudge over losing, but Clarissa is getting gloating satisfaction over seeing Turquoise not living up to her expected potential.
The current pageant contestants and some of their parents are given a tour of the Miss Juneteenth headquarters, which has a room with photos of past Miss Juneteenth winners. Turquoise’s picture is on the wall, but she doesn’t get mentioned during the tour. The tour guide points out some notable former Miss Juneteenth winners whom the organization seems to be the most proud of: a civil rights activist, a surgeon and a congressman’s wife. By saying that being a congressman’s wife is an example of being an accomplished former Miss Juneteenth, it shows an old-fashioned mindset that a woman is considered “accomplished” based on who she marries, not her own individual achievements.
It’s this underlying conservatism in the pageant that Turquoise is acutely aware of when she pressures Kai to make a certain choice in the talent segment of the pageant. Kai wants to do a hip-hop dance routine. Turquoise says that it’s a bad idea because she thinks that hip-hop isn’t dignified enough for Kai or the pageant. Instead, Turquoise insists that Kai recite the Maya Angelou poem “Phenomenal Woman.”
The arguments that Turquoise and Kai have over what Kai wants to do to express her talent have less to do with a generation gap and more to do with the image that Turquoise wants Kai to project. Almost all of Turquoise’s decisions for Kai in the pageant are about making Kai look like she’s in a higher social class than she really is. Turquoise knows putting on these false airs is a charade, since there are too many people involved in the pageant who know that Kai comes from a working-class household. However, Turquoise still forges ahead with the hope that Kai will be judged as a “classier” person than the type of person Turquoise has been judged to be.
The intergenerational conflicts in the Jones family isn’t just about Turquoise and Kai. Turquoise has major issues with her own mother Charlotte (played by Lori Hayes), who is a devout, churchgoing Christian but who has a past as an alcoholic and neglectful mother. Turquoise and Charlotte have a very strained relationship, and they’re not in contact with each other very much.
Charlotte disapproves of how Turquoise’s life has turned out, and Charlotte thinks that Turquoise’s life would improve if Turquoise went to church on a regular basis. Charlotte also disapproves of Turquoise working in a bar. Turquoise is not religious and wants no part of Charlotte’s Bible-thumping lifestyle.
Turquoise also feels lingering resentment toward Charlotte because Turquoise had a dysfunctional and unhappy childhood due to Charlotte’s alcoholism. There are hints that Charlotte was emotionally and verbally abusive to Turquoise. It’s shown in the story that because Turquoise and Charlotte both haven’t completely conquered certain demons from their past, it’s caused them to distrust each other and made it hard for them to respect each other.
And it’s why Charlotte is skeptical about Turquoise’s goal to have Kai win the Miss Juneteenth pageant, which Charlotte calls “pipe dreams.” Charlotte believes that Turquoise has set a bad example for Kai because Turquoise squandered the opportunities that Turquoise got from winning the Miss Juneteenth pageant. This disappointment has created an oppressive circle of shame where Charlotte makes Turquoise feel bad about these wasted opportunities, while Turquoise feels enough remorse about herself and tries to prevent Charlotte from making her feel worse.
The greatest strength of “Miss Juneteenth” is how authentically the movie portrays a specific part of African American culture, without being pandering or exploitative. The movie also goes beyond race to show how Americans’ self-esteem is often wrapped up in the idea that someone is a “failure” if that person hasn’t achieved the American Dream, whatever the definition of the American Dream is. The world of child/teen beauty pageants in the U.S. represents a small slice of wanting to achieve the American Dream. And it’s why many working-class families (usually mothers), just like Turquoise, spend a lot of money they can’t afford to have their daughters in these pageants.
“Miss Juneteenth” is also a poignant story about the sometimes-uncomfortable process of reconciling a young person’s dreams with the reality of how that person’s life turned out when that person isn’t so young anymore. Turquoise wants to be more than the stereotype of a financially struggling African American mother who’s the only head of her household, but she’s also feeling shame that her life in many ways has become that stereotype. Turquoise doesn’t want Kai to make the same mistakes, but Turquoise also wants to use Kai (and the hope that Kai will win the Miss Juneteenth pageant) as “proof” that Turquoise did something right with her life after all.
With the skilled and naturalistic direction and writing of Godfrey Peoples, “Miss Juneteenth” is a convincing depiction of complicated people who don’t seem like characters only created for a movie but more like characters who accurately represent a lot of people in America today. Beharie gives a captivating performance as the flawed but industrious Turquoise, who knows she’s not perfect, but is doing her best to improve her life. This determined mother sees her daughter winning the Miss Juneteenth pageant as the answer to her own immediate problems without necessarily understanding that the pageant can’t really fix her life in the way it needs to be fixed. Above all, the movie is a worthwhile inspiration for showing that chasing after what you don’t have shouldn’t come at the expense of appreciating what you do have.
Vertical Entertainment released “Miss Juneteenth” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on June 19, 2020.