The Phenomenal Women of Miss Juneteenth

September 22nd, 2020

I have a confession. Prior to this past June, I had never heard of the holiday Juneteenth that commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. Several months after the Civil War ended, a General and his troops traveled to Gavelston, Texas announcing all slaves were now free. Despite the historical importance of this day, this holiday has received scant attention outside of African American communities. Fortunately, the galvanizing of the Black Lives Matter movement has brought renewed interest to the history of African Americans and highlighted a significant event in American history that too many of us far have been ignorant of for far too long.

In this spirit, MISS JUNETEENTH, an indie film currently available On Demand and Prime, centers around the struggles of a young African American woman, Turquoise Jones, and her headstrong teenage daughter, Kai. Turquoise, a former winner of the Miss Juneteenth beauty pageant, insists her daughter should likewise toss her hat into the ring, convinced a win will pave the way for Kai’s future success. It’s easy to understand Turquoise’s conviction. After all, she works two jobs and is essentially a single parent as Kai’s father proves unreliable when it comes to child support. And this beauty pageant promises the eventual winner a college scholarship. Alas, these beauty pageants come with a hefty price: registration fees, etiquette classes (ensuring contestants such learn crucial life skills, such as knowing the difference between a salad and entree fork) and most egregious of all—a fabulous gown, a financially strapped woman such as Turquoise can scarcely afford. Nevertheless, confronted with the harsh reality of limited opportunities she does what it takes to give her daughter a fair shot of the so-called American dream, enduring endless humiliation along the way, such as when a condescending White female dress shop clerk informs her, “We don’t have layaway here.”

Nevertheless, the film celebrates the protagonists’ strength as they overcome each new obstacle undoubtedly all too familiar to Women of Color in a country that subjects them to endless daily injustices. Adding irony into the mix, we’re presented with a beauty pageant that celebrates African American culture and liberation, while simultaneously following the reckless tradition of pitting young girls against each other based on superficial qualities such as beauty and fancy wardrobe. A former Miss Juneteenth herself, however, Turquoise comes to recognize the promise of the pageant is merely an illusion and that a woman’s beauty does not necessarily ensure her success — a point Kai further drives home when she reminds her mother, who cleans toilets for a living, “It didn’t do nothing for you.”

In a similar vein, Turquoise’s male boss tells her, “There ain’t no American dream for black folks.” Yet amidst all the hardship, Turquoise clings to hope. Her life may have taken an unconventional path, but the road is now open to her—and for Kai, who will succeed on her own terms, a promise she voices during the talent section of the pageant in a simple, yet poignant way, reciting lines from Maya Angelou’s poem “Phenomenal Woman”:

“I am not cute or made to suit a model fashion size. I am a woman, a phenomenal woman.”

Miss Juneteenth is the debut feature of African American writer/director Channing Godfrey Peoples, another small but significant indication that African American women are forging paths they were previously denied—and not just in the world of cinema. In a matter of weeks, the United States may elect a smart, accomplished African American woman as our new Vice President. This could be the start of a brighter future for so many whose families have faced centuries of discrimination, still fighting for their voices to be heard. Now we must only choose to embrace it.  Don’t forget to vote.




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