A complex, realistic, and loving mother-daughter relationship is at the heart of this story about Black pageants and the fight for a better future.
I honestly don’t know how anyone could watch Miss Juneteenth and not like it. Channing Godfrey Peoples tells the story of Turquoise (Nicole Beharie) and her daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) navigating a Miss Juneteenth 2019 pageant while real life gets in the way, as it tends to do. The movie is sweet, subtle, and honest.
The three major themes of motherhood, history, and love are so gracefully represented in Miss Juneteenth, solidifying the important messages and characterization as broken down below.
“She’s my dream now.”
Turquoise and Kai are good and relatable. Their relationship is the most realistic and loving I have seen in film in a long time. There are seemingly harsh rules, boundaries crossed, embarrassment, and disappointment in this parent-child duo, but there is still so much love. They hold each other, kiss, laugh together and protect each other. Films tend to display parental relationships as either distant and cold, abusive, blurring into more of a friendship, competitive, or burdensome. Peoples has written a fresh, but still accurate, mother-daughter relationship. A mother who wants her daughter to do better than she has done; pushes her daughter, but not too hard, doesn’t ignore her daughter’s sense of self, wants to protect her daughter, and wants her to feel loved. They fight, some trust is broken, but they work on it and show their love and support for one another in every shared scene.
The viewer can infer that the reason behind Turquoise’s fall from grace in the community was because of the pregnancy, but Turquoise never says it and is defensive when anyone implies it. Turquoise is just doing what mothers should do: putting her family first, leading Kai in the right direction, and admitting her own mistakes without shame.
“Ain’t no American Dream for Black folk.”
This film does not pit its Black characters against White characters (there is only one White character in the film). The only direct mention of race is the criticism of the White establishment. However, Miss Juneteenth is a movie about race. The pageant itself covers the history of Texas and Juneteenth. The pageant official reminds the contestants of the burden they will bear if granted the win and subsequent scholarship. They will represent the community and, basically, must be perfect. Turquoise is treated as the black sheep, the disappointment to the franchise; the symbol of lost hope. But Turquoise is the strongest woman in the entire community. She never bows down to the pressure from the community, from her mother, or her husband. Several characters remind her that she “used to have big dreams.” But she still has big dreams, they are just quieter. This is an important and rarely seen depiction of not only a female character but a Black woman. The Black community in Miss Juneteenth is powerful. Turquoise’s community builds her up, reminds her of how persistent and hardworking she is, and helps her in every way they can — from babysitting to tailoring to advising.
The antagonists in the film are the elitists. None of the main characters are too problematic. They are working hard and making tough decisions. Even when Ronnie is arrested, it is not for any violent or serious crime — it is for hunting in a nature preserve. The pageant officials, the unseen (but referenced) banks, and White patriarchy are the antagonists. Poverty does not lead the characters to illegal activities, violence, selling themselves out, or becoming angry and hateful, as is the case in many films set in poor communities.
“…represent your beautiful selves, but our history as well.”
When White cisgender men are the “norm,” everyone else is an “other.” Part of the reason to critically analyze media representation of BIPOC is that sometimes it is the only representation White people see. When the media shows Black men only as angry or threatening because of the specific individuals represented, the stereotype is perpetuated. Miss Juneteenth tackles this very real problem. The pageant official tells the girls that they are representing themselves, but history as well. What a burden to put on anyone, let alone 15-year-old girls! But this is the truth we all live in today. Perhaps after the murder of George Floyd and the country’s attempt to see the brutality involved with assumptions about an individual’s race, we are all more aware of it than ever. But awareness is only the first step toward change.
“I just want something for myself.”
Turquoise is the epitome of a multidimensional character. Her first priority is her daughter. Regardless of the allure of running off for a loveless marriage with a successful suitor, she places her bets on herself instead. While she is disappointed by her husband, Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson), and worried for Kai, she remains strong and resilient.
I have to admit — I wanted to see Ronnie and Turquoise together. This was a love story with a harsh past, due to an assumed jail sentence for Ronnie and just being young parents, but I loved it. I loved seeing a mother and father still together and in love after so many years and so many roadblocks. I loved that Ronnie, while making some slightly irritating choices, is also a good person. I loved that there wasn’t violence following the run-in with Baker, the man who has pined for Turquoise for years. Typically, men in films, especially Black men, are prone to irrational violence when it comes to jealousy over their partner. While Ronnie is upset, he doesn’t do anything stupid and still smiles kindly at Turquoise when he next sees her. Ronnie is trying to be better, and while that has come with some bumps in the road, he is still on the road.
But the main love story is between Turquoise and herself. As cheesy as that sounds, Turquoise manages to ignore the emotional, financial, and physical setbacks thrown at her throughout the film and stays true to herself. Her worst decision is that she got a bit forceful with her daughter entering the pageant. But I don’t blame her! Everyone wants to give their children a better life than they had. Turquoise thinks education is Kai’s best chance at a good life. And the only way to get a good education is money or scholarships. The pageant is the ticket to an education and a way out. Turquoise is not a stage mom and this is not Toddlers and Tiaras. The pageant is assumed to be the only chance Kai will have for a bright future, and Turquoise wants that so badly for her daughter.
The strength and ability of a mother to apologize to their teenage daughter are remarkable. Kai is a good kid — she likes dancing, her phone, and her boyfriend (who is a good person as well). Kai respects her mother and knows she working hard and doing her best for Kai. Turquoise is a good mother, and part of being a good mother is recognizing and working toward your own dreams as well. She ultimately realizes this, and instead of pushing her daughter in a specific direction, she simply supports her (emotionally and financially). As Glennon Doyle explains in the book Untamed, mothers should be models, not martyrs. Turquoise is the ultimate model of strength, love, and hard work without compromise.
(This article was originally published by Sarah Erskine on Medium.)