Spoiler alert! We're discussing a few plot details for the new movie “Miss Juneteenth.” Stop reading now if you haven't seen it yet.
With America in the midst of a vocal uprising centered on racism and police brutality, "Miss Juneteenth" is arriving right on time.
Unlike the movie's namesake holiday, which celebrates the date when Black Americans in Texas found out President Abraham Lincoln had freed the country's slaves two years earlier, the release of "Miss Juneteenth" (streaming Friday on digital platforms) comes at a timely moment of nationwide protests and a global pandemic.
In writer/director Channing Godfrey Peoples' coming of age film, former beauty queen Turquoise (Nicole Beharie) re-envisions what her life could have been by entering her teenage daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) in the same Miss Juneteenth pageant she once won. With an assist from "Insecure" star Kendrick Sampson as Kai's dad Ronnie, the movie centers on finding joy, paying the bills and the American Dream deferred in a small Texas town.
What is Juneteenth?
Juneteenth, celebrated on June 19, recognizes the date in 1865 when the Emancipation Proclamation – which had been issued on January 1, 1863 – was read to enslaved African Americans in Texas by Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger, two years after Lincoln freed slaves. The U.S. holiday is also known as Freedom Day, Jubilee Day and Cel-Liberation Day. The day is typically marked with events and parades, but celebrations could look different this year because of the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests and the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We’re still fighting for our freedom," Peoples says. "We’re fighting for our freedom to breathe at this point."
Here are some of the film's most poignant moments:
Even without electricity, there's still lots of light in Kai's birthday
Kai is turning 15, and the power is out. Though Turquoise returns home with a cake and an unpaid light bill, she's still able to create joy in her teenage daughter for her birthday. The scene is fully dark except for the candles on the cake, illuminating their faces and continuing the movie's theme that even in the (sometimes literal) darkness, there is light to be found and celebrated.
Turquoise "still wants to make something better for Kai, so she’s finding a way to make this moment look like a celebration," Peoples says. They break out Turquoise's old Miss Juneteenth crown and Kai crowns herself the "queen of it all."
Turquoise and Kai share mother-daughter bonding over hair
Hair has always played an important role in Black communities, and the movie highlights the insecurities Black women in particular have faced about wearing their hair natural and the hair rituals that are well-known staples in many Black households.
"As a storyteller and also as an African-American woman, I really thought it was important for Turquoise and Kai to be in their natural hair (and to have) more folks be so open and have a sense of pride about embracing natural hair," Peoples says.
When Kai sits in a chair next to the stove while Turquoise heats up a hot comb to straighten her daughter's hair, it's a familiar scene that will evoke strong memories (and scents) for Black women everywhere – a Black mom sharing life lessons while combing out her daughter's hair. "My life would have been different if I stuck with it," Turquoise tells Kai of the positive path she could taken with the scholarship prize from her pageant win. "That's what I want for you."
Turquoise and Ronnie re-imagine their dreams
For Turquoise, daily life is a constant reminder of her peak as Miss Juneteenth 2004. Her life outside of her daughter revolves around helping run a local dive bar and picking up extra shifts doing makeup at a funeral home – the ultimate juxtaposition between Black life and Black death.
"In that neighborhood, gentrification is inching closer and closer to them, so there’s the fear of that dream being snatched away from you," Peoples says.
In two scenes, Turquoise and Ronnie both finally choose themselves and their dreams. Ronnie skips out, failing to show up with money to help buy Kai's pageant gown, and eventually reveals he put the money down as a deposit on buying his own car repair business. Inspired by Kai, Turquoise makes a pitch to buy the bar.
Kai nixes respectability politics for her pageant performance of Maya Angelou's 'Phenomenal Woman'
After feeling embarrassed while practicing dining table etiquette with the Miss Juneteenth pageant ladies and not having an expensive dress to wear, Kai chooses the talent competition to showcase what she actually wants to do: dance.
Instead of sticking to the script she practiced with her mother, Kai's reading of Maya Angelou's poem "Phenomenal Woman" is enhanced with hip-hop beats and a dance routine to correspond with the still-relevant words. In the spirit of what Juneteenth stands for, Kai is choosing freedom.
"You have young people who are out there (now) with a sense of having to fight for their own lives just as a Black person in America, and here Kai is saying, 'I just want to be able to be free to be myself,' " Peoples says. "At what point do our kids get to be carefree?"