If you’ve been following the absolute horror show that is our current news cycle, then you will know and understand the importance of amplifying Black voices. You will also understand that within each community is a beautiful and vital perspective that is worth honoring. Beyond that, you will also know that it is these individual stories and perspectives that make up the totality of the beautiful human experience. If there was ever a film that embodied this notion, it would be MISS JUNETEENTH.
In MISS JUNETEENTH, a former beauty queen turned hard-working single mother prepares her rebellious teenage daughter for the Miss Juneteenth pageant, hoping to keep her from repeating the same mistakes in life that she has made.
The film is written and directed by Channing Godfrey Peoples (“Queen Sugar”) and stars Nicole Beharie (Shame, Jacob’s Ladder), Kendrick Sampson (“How to Get Away with Murder”), and introducing Alexis Chikaeze in her feature film debut. MISS JUNETEENTH enjoyed a World Premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and won the Lone Star Award for Best Texan Film at SXSW Film Festival 2020.
Before we dive into this review of MISS JUNETEENTH, I want to take a moment to briefly summarize the holiday. Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day, commemorates the date of June 19, 1865. This was the day that news of the abolition of slavery was finally announced in Texas. The Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, was not enforced until after the Confederacy collapsed and Texas was the most remote of the former Confederate states. Juneteenth marks the day that, finally, all former slaves received the news that they were free.
Over the years, the celebration has been a special marker for Black culture in America and its significance has been felt strongly at different pivotal points in history. The beginnings of Juneteenth were as a church-centered community celebration in Texas, which evolved into a food festival as the holiday spread outside of Texas and across the South. The holiday took on the focus of the struggle of the Black community and postwar civil rights during the 1960s, at the height of the Civil Rights movement. In the 1970s, Juneteenth evolved again into a celebration of Black freedom and arts.
Today, Juneteenth is celebrated across the United States in most major cities and is recognized as a state holiday/day of observance in 46 of 50 states. Most recently, current activists have been pushing Congress to recognize Juneteenth as a national holiday.
Now let’s get into this fantastic film!
MISS JUNETEENTH is an absolutely beautiful story of expectation and struggle and the desire of every mother to protect their child from the ugly parts of the world and see them grow into something more. While this is a sentiment that is shared universally among all mothers, MISS JUNETEENTH firmly focuses this story within the Black perspective. In the film, there’s a fantastic quote – “There is no American dream for Black folks. We hang on to what we have.” – that speaks to more than just the potential of a young person, but how each generation becomes an ambassador for the generations that came before. The desire to give the best possible opportunities to a child is only amplified by the historic and contemporary struggles of an entire community.
It is no accident that Maya Angelou’s famous poem, Phenomenal Woman, is at the center of MISS JUNETEENTH. Angelou, the iconic Black poet and writer that she is, speaks to what it is to be a woman outside of the strict social standard. The piece, in the context of the film, recognizes the beauty of Black girls and women despite beauty standards that limit themselves to a European definition. The poem marks the transition from a girl to a woman. From a girl to a proud woman, carrying on the tradition of women who came before. The poem is powerful on its own and anchoring MISS JUNETEENTH to those iconic words makes for a beautiful thesis statement.
To put it in the most basic terms, MISS JUNETEENTH is a story about mothers and daughters. The way the generations grow beyond those that came before, but still see themselves reflected in one another. Every generation of women, of Black women especially, is an opportunity. The writing is thoughtful and compelling and the entire cast performs to perfection. MISS JUNETEENTH hits hard and it’s fantastic.
Of course, I can only speak to this film through the limited perspective I have as a white critic, but MISS JUNETEENTH carves out a gorgeous space for a celebration of Black womanhood within this universally moving story of mothers, daughters, and how we try to give the world to those that we love. Don’t skip this one.
MISS JUNETEENTH will be available digitally and on-demand on June 19, 2020.