Among the many schadenfreude-themed reality TV shows popular in America in the late 2000s, beauty pageants, particularly those involving children with capped smiles and unhinged mothers, form their own genre. On shows like Toddlers and Tiaras, the entertainment factor came from the obviousness of the con played on the moms, who frequently spent more on competition entrance fees than they took home in prize money. Not only were beauty pageants a scam, it seemed, but they were a scam pitched at a psychological Achilles’ heel common to many mothers: The obsessive urge to reenact your own life, but perfectly, through your child.
The new movie Miss Juneteenth, which begins streaming today, is about a very different pageant tradition, but its drama radiates from that same tender spot in the mother-daughter relationship. Instead of little girls in fake teeth, our subject is the Miss Juneteenth pageant in Fort Worth, Texas, a worthier and more old-fashioned beauty queen award. It is granted each year on June 19 to a young black woman from the city, entitling her to a full college scholarship. The date has special significance in Texas, where the Juneteenth holiday was created in memory of the state’s abolition of slavery, two years after 1863’s Emancipation Proclamation.
Nicole Beharie plays Turquoise, an overworked young single mother trying to scrape together the money and the time to enter her daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) into the pageant, which she herself won in 2004. Turquoise was a young beauty brimming with potential, but we can infer that she lost her scholarship after she got pregnant with Kai, who is now 14 going on 15. No steady source of income followed for Turquoise.
Black celebrities who have gone from pageants to professional success include Halle Berry (competitor for Miss World, 1986); Oprah Winfrey (Miss Tennessee, 1972); and Vanessa Williams (the first African American Miss America, 1984, a crown she was forced to relinquish after Penthouse obtained nude photographs of her). So there is a pressure weighing on Kai that doesn’t just come from her mother but from a much larger system of judgment that dictates that Miss Juneteenth is the pinnacle of what a young black woman should want to be.
Competing involves learning about silverware and wearing ball gowns, and Kai is unenthusiastic. She prefers to dance. This ambition is more comprehensible to her charismatic but unreliable father, Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson), than to her mother, who associates dance with stripping.
Though the tension between mother and daughter remains center stage, Miss Juneteenth’s broader subject turns out to be the political economics of surviving as a black woman in Texas. Kai is under pressure to perform a miracle to rescue her mother from a system that makes it impossible for her to thrive. Ronnie does not give Turquoise the money she needs and deserves. Her boss doesn’t pay her enough at the bar where she works, and Ronnie won’t look after Kai so that she can take more shifts. She’s in a vise that’s only tightening.
Although Turquoise’s community is strong and supportive, and she’s constantly praised for her beauty, none of that gives her enough money to live on. One serious suitor appears in Miss Juneteenth, who explicitly offers to “take her off her feet” with the profits of his funeral home, but Turquoise is adamant that she won’t be bought. She’s a romantic—as her on-off relationship with Ronnie proves—but she has also set hard and fast boundaries about the relationship between her looks and her finances.
Her almost blinkered dedication to doing things the right way explains how Turquoise could go so long before noticing how much her daughter hates pageant work. The women who staff the pageant are bitchy to Turquoise, as if getting pregnant stripped her of all her value. The whole pageant model of virtue comes to seem like folly, and Kai is too smart to miss it.
A poem turns it all around. Although we never see it happen on-screen, Turquoise won her 2004 crown after a mesmerizing rendition of Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman.” Kai chooses to perform the same poem, which she recites miserably in rare rehearsals. But as she comes to her own terms with Angelou’s lines, the poem (“It’s in the reach of my arms, / The span of my hips, / The stride of my step, / The curl of my lips. / I’m a woman. / Phenomenally.”) takes the place of the pageant, becoming the symbol of potential that Kai really needs.
Miss Juneteenth is a pleasing visual mix of Fort Worth filmed in pastel colors and rigorously lit, gorgeous portrait shots. Turquoise often appears in front of a window, doing something mundane like the dishes, as natural light floods her features. Beharie is distractingly good-looking (as are both Sampson and Chikaeze) but manages to convey the sense, as Turquoise, that she is both indebted to and resentful of her own beauty.
Beauty is also a feature of Fort Worth, which is full of characters in immaculate outfits and men riding horses in elaborate hats. The film is a tribute to its creator’s hometown: Miss Juneteenth is the debut feature for Fort Worth native Channing Godfrey Peoples, who in her director’s statement writes that as a girl she “marveled at the annual Miss Juneteenth winner gliding across the stage with hope on her face.” She describes her theme—which applies to both her heroine and Juneteenth itself—as “what happens when good things come too late.” Miss Juneteenth is about self-sacrifice and deferral, but also the realization that some kinds of joy need to happen immediately.