Books, Arts & Manners

Miss Juneteenth Subverts the Phony Holiday

Nicole Beharie and Alexis Chikaeze in Miss Juneteenth (Vertical Entertainment)
A new race movie avoids the new Blaxploitation.

Except for one scene that tours a modest, amateurish museum in Fort Worth devoted to the history of the Juneteenth celebration, the movie Miss Juneteenth focuses on the personal, emotional life of a black Texas woman, Turquoise Jones (Nichole Beharie), and her efforts to win an ethnic-beauty-pageant crown for her 14-year-old daughter. Miss Juneteenth is not about trendy politics — despite its novelty title — so it may seem out of joint. But debut director Channing Godfrey Peoples and producer David Lowery deserve credit for avoiding the opportunistic occasion.

Miss Juneteenth refuses the political correctness that suddenly overtook the nation last week, exemplified by New York governor Andrew Cuomo officially declaring Juneteenth (a local Texas event) a state holiday and the media forcing the public into commemoration mode in order to promote Black Lives Matter dissent. Instead, Miss Juneteenth was made by Texans Godfrey Peoples and Lowery, and made without guile, showing how Turquoise passes her history — and her values — on to her daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze), who boasts a teen’s very relaxed ideals.

Blackness and womanhood mean different things to this Gen Y mother and Millennial daughter. Neither Turquoise nor Kai is particularly political, and in this way, Miss Juneteenth gently reproves the current enthusiasm that all black generations experience the same social conditions — a notion that’s imposed on blacks by activists, media, and pandering politicians. The pageant scholarship means less to Turquoise than her own memory of winning. That experience “made me feel like I had a chance,” she says — while holding a straightening comb, Godfrey Peoples’s perfect image of a certain black female’s ego and striving.

The value of this insight starts with Turquoise’s charm. Beharie plays her with a no-nonsense smile. She recalls Regina Hall in Support the Girls, who also works at a dining establishment where encouraging and rebuffing men is part of the vocation. A bodacious co-worker playfully admits, “Sometimes we women take it all on ourselves, don’t we?” — saying it for real, but playfully. They both have great smiles, and that buoyant perseverance is the movie’s theme.

Still open to sex and romance, Turquoise is adamant that her daughter (who matches her own youthful sass) escape those traps. Here’s where Godfrey Peoples honors her mentor Lorraine Hansberry (A Raisin in the Sun) by examining the pressure of domineering motherhood as a black American cultural phenomenon. (The subplot about an alcoholic religious-hypocrite grandmother sticks out as the film’s one concession to modish secularism, but it’s a brief diversion.) Turquoise tries to break Hansberry’s domestic pattern, complicated by feelings for her baby-daddy Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson), a light-eyed pretty boy who is, typically, subject to the usual black male law-breaking temptations. Ronnie is proprietary about Turquoise, the wife (and youthful love) he cannot control or live with. His casual fatherhood contributes the other side of Kai’s spoiled character.

The influence of Lowery’s indie-movie eccentricity (A Ghost Story) on Godfrey Peoples’s project creates characters that slip past black-movie clichés. So while Miss Juneteenth is decidedly noncommercial, it also feels uniquely individual. Kai’s pageant competition features a Maya Angelou recitation, then a dance performance and Afro hairstyle that Michelle Obama would never countenance. This suggestion that some black Americans (like most Americans) live by their instincts and are not political ideologues is almost radical.

In that museum sequence, the docent explains, “Juneteenth is our holiday when the slaves of Texas recognized their liberation two long years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.” The two-year gap indicates a truth about America’s gradual development. “We’re expecting greatness!” the pageant contestants are told, just like the traditions maintained by such black American customs as the Ebony Fashion Fair and the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority.

Although Miss Juneteenth isn’t a great movie, it dramatizes personal resilience — the quality left out of black characterizations when black filmmakers reduce their stories to fit the perception of white liberal patronization. Here, Southern working-class hardship is taken for granted as basic and universal. The generational mother-daughter conflict also recalls the Seventies melodrama The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds but remade with post-Obama skepticism. When Turquoise cynically smirks about the American Dream, her Bar B Q boss, a black business owner, corrects her realistically: “I’m holding on to what I got.”

By opposing the media’s monolithic “black” thought processes — including the recent Juneteenth manipulations — Miss Juneteenth feels like the era’s first black conservative movie.

Miss Juneteenth began streaming on June 19

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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