Miss Juneteenth: Building upon the legacy of Black storytellers

In Channing Godfrey Peoples’ debut film Miss Juneteenth (2020) she builds upon the legacies of Black storytellers, capturing how meritocracy and matriarchy affect African American families.

Lorraine Hansberry was the first African American woman to debut a play on Broadway, but because of her premature death at age 34, she did not live to see the lasting impact it would have on art to come. All of the ideas Hansberry imagined and then enacted on stage in 1959 live on through Channing Godfrey Peoples’ debut film Miss Juneteenth (2020).

The title of Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun (1959) is based on Langston Hughes poem that reads:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

Like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore – 

And then run? 

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over – 

Like a syrupy sweet? 

Miss Juneteenth follows Turquoise, a single mother working two jobs. Turquoise enters her daughter into the Miss Juneteenth beauty pageant, a title she won several years prior. This title is named after the tradition, Juneteenth (also known as ‘Emancipation Day’) a public holiday in America. On June 19th 1865, African Americans were told they were emancipated from slavery after decades of abolitionist movements.

June 19th is an annual celebration of freedom. But Juneteenth is so much more than this

Freed from a system that saw the estrangement of families and monetisation of Black lives, Juneteenth is proudly family-centric; a public display of national Black pride that brings once separated communities together. 

In a bid to give her daughter a fair chance at winning this competition, Turquoise saves all of her tips, sells her wedding ring and even stops paying their electricity bill to finance its costs — which awards the winner a full scholarship to any historically Black college of her choice.

The film peaks in Turquoise’s intimate relationships, when her needs and desires conflict with those closest to her. Her daughter Kai is far from enthused about being the receptacle that her mother lives out her past glories through, and Kai’s father Ronnie is both possessive of Turquoise and too unreliable to be a constant figure in Kai’s life. To top this off, Turquoise’s relationship with her mother constantly fluctuates due to her dual personality; a strait-laced God-fearing woman during the day and an alcoholic, who frequents the bar Turquoise tends at night.

In this film, the historical importance of the holiday is largely put on the back burner, but its implications are always looming. To be Miss Juneteenth replicates the exact same positivity of its namesake holiday. It is to show that opportunity awaits all and that meritocracy exists. Both of these sentiments come with hope – but the sad reality of these traditions is far from this. It is that despite ‘Emancipation Day’ the hope of racial equality and social mobility has not been realised; and that the crown that Miss Juneteenth bares does not guarantee a fruitful and successful life. 

Turquoise’s dreams have been deferred for so long, she has put their weight onto her daughter. A burden that is fostered by the unattainable American dream.

The pursuit of the American Dream is futile and detrimental to Black families

This is something Hansberry stressed decades ago – and through the three generations of Black women in this film, there is an ongoing theme of making concentrated efforts not to replicate the mistakes of the previous generation, as they blame themselves for their unfulfillment rather than questioning the societal expectations they are saddled with. 

The goal of social mobility is framed through the lens of Kai winning the coveted title and the pressure she has to achieve this is indicative of something universal. The delay of each characters’ hopes and dreams throughout paired with the aspiration to do more for oneself is always in contention with stagnant social conditions.

Despite active efforts, their lives never seem to actually improve, and although Turquoise once won the competition, she never left her hometown. Miss Juneteenth shows this superbly, weaving dramatised reactions through genuine, often sombre dilemmas.

Of course, it is always pleasant to see a Black woman who defies stereotypes by being level-headed and well balanced, but it is especially refreshing to see Black matriarchal relationships as tender and warm. The best part of Miss Juneteenth is how the characters treat each other even when they have done wrong by one another. As Kai tries to balance her aspirations with her mother’s (albeit unhealthy) fairy tale, it illustrates that even familial love takes work. 

Miss Juneteenth emphasises that love must be conditional in order to work

To finally see each character love each other out of mutual respect rather than obligation is mature and true to life and the framing of this within the notion that fulfilment cannot be rooted in just superficial means is both sobering and liberating for Turquoise.

Miss Juneteenth is not a perfect film by any means, but its messages are valuable. It is embedded in African American storytelling, and Channing Godfrey Peoples’ first film is a great addition to these traditions. It is heartfelt and soft, and just when it edges towards a bittersweet ending, its decision to fall on the side of optimism is one of its best features.

Godfrey beautifully paints that love must be conditional in order to work, even in the most intimate of relationships

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