Miss Juneteenth is a 2020 film centering around a Black mother, Turquoise, and her relationship with her teenage daughter, Kai. As their local pageant season rolls around and as Kai approaches her fifteenth birthday, she has finally become eligible to compete in the pageant, also titled Miss Juneteenth. Despite the teenager’s apprehension to join the competition, her mother’s insistence finally pushes her to sign up. Turquoise, or Turq, had been the competitions champion in her younger days and wishes for her daughter to be crowned with the same title as Miss Juneteenth and consequently win the Miss Juneteenth scholarship, which would allow her to attend the college of her choosing.
However, much of the story does focus on Turquoise and her journey after she was unable to fully claim her victory of the Juneteenth pageant after she became pregnant and had to drop out of college to become a stripper. She currently works at a bar in order to make ends meet and is attempting to scrape together enough cash to buy her daughter a brand-new dress for the competition. The narrative focuses largely on her work life, with several scenes taking place as Turq works through the night at the bar, as she works her side job doing makeup for cadavers at the local funeral home, and as she restarts her flame with her daughter’s father Ronnie.
This thematic focus on the work-life flow is interesting in the context of this film, which features a fully Black cast and has several scenes which specifically focus on the history of June 19thand the history of enslaved people in America. Juneteenth is a widely celebrated day that marks the anniversary of when some of the last enslaved people in Texas were informed that slavery had ended two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was pronounced. For many, this day is the true day of American independence, as it was the day all citizens in the United States became aware of their liberty. Turq’s arc after her seemingly life-altering story seems to be completely chronicled through her various jobs. First, she worked as a sex worker, and then began waitressing and working for her high school friend’s funeral home. Her life is defined by her labor and the money this labor allowed for thus defines her daughter’s experience. At some point in the plot, Ronnie gets arrested as says he has to work off his sentencing by “working in the field like a slave.”
The heavy reference to slavery both through Ronnie’s arrest and through Turq’s experience post-pregnancy serves to show the Black experience has not changed much despite the legal abolishment of slavery post-Civil war. This being said, the title of the film and the name of the pageant “Miss Juneteenth” are directly associated with the concept of liberty that the holiday of Juneteenth embodies. The Miss Juneteenth pageant for many, just like Turq, is one of the only means that Black girls have to escape the oppression of the work force that Black people still endure to this day. For enslaved Black folks this oppression came in the form of systematic slavery, for Turquoise and other Black women this oppression stems from the system of capitalism, which remains structurally violent against Black women through trapping them in the working class. Kai and Turq are unable to escape the exploitation of the working class because of their lack of generational wealth, access to higher education, and general lack of resources, all of which can be rooted back to slavery and the way in which it robbed Black folks from a fair economic starting place.
Turq’s obsession with the Miss Juneteenth pageant is equivalent to her obsession with breaking the economic barrier that separates white and Black livelihood in the United States. As Kai goes through the rounds of preparation for the pageant, she learns the history of the meaning of Juneteenth, as well as learning the proper etiquette for extremely formal dinner parties, being ridiculed for not knowing the difference between a salad and entre knife. This scene represents exactly what winning the pageant’s scholarship would entail; a means of breaking out of Blackness and into the economic status and elitism that has been reserved for white American’s historically and structurally.
Although this is Turq’s ultimate dream for her daughter, Kai has much different values and ambitions. She is happy in the Black community where she lives; she watches her father play rounds of poker at a local club, wears her hair naturally throughout the film and even on the day of the pageant (despite her mother’s objections), and wants, more than anything, to join her high school’s dance team. And herein lies the conflict between the mother and daughter: Kai accepts her life as it is and wants to make the best of the things she already has access to, while her mother mostly rejects their way of life and wishes she could give her daughter “more”.
The resolution to the film is where it’s feminist messaging lies. Kai does not win the pageant, after she goes against her mother’s wishes and performs a dance and song version of Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman.” After her defeat, her mother soon realizes that the version of life she wanted for her daughter was not what Kai herself truly desired. Turq comes to accept Kai’s comfort in her community and economic status, seeing her as an autonomous being rather than a younger version of herself. Turq goes on to tell Kai to join the dance team, finally giving in to her daughter’s wishes and embraces her and her daughter’s place within the Black sphere of capitalism where they can still find happiness.