In the first scene of Miss Juneteenth, Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie) takes out the sparkling crown and bright yellow gown she’d donned fifteen years prior. As “Lift Every Voice and Sing” resounds in the background, we see a flashback of Turquoise waving to a cheering crowd in 2004, the year she was crowned Miss Juneteenth in the pageant of the same name. The film then jumps to the present day and shows Jones scrubbing a toilet at the restaurant where she works. “I will never get over seeing Miss Juneteenth cleaning toilets,” a fellow employee says to her.
Turquoise, a single mother in Fort Worth, works at both a barbecue joint and a funeral home so that she can make a living and pay fees for her teenage daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) to enter the local Miss Juneteenth scholarship pageant. Money is tight, but Turquoise’s decision to have Kai compete isn’t up for debate. But Kai’s reluctance to participate in the pageant turns into a quest for her own independence from her mother, whose plans for Kai stem from both her desire to secure a good future for her daughter and the regret she feels for not fully taking advantage of the pageant’s full-ride scholarship she’d won a decade and a half earlier. “My life could’ve been different if I would’ve stuck with it,” she tells Kai while hot-combing her hair for the pageant.
The Miss Juneteenth pageant is a real competition in Fort Worth that the film’s director and writer, Channing Godfrey Peoples, grew up attending—one where teenage girls vie for a scholarship to any historically Black college or university. “I got to see the Miss Juneteenth pageant, which was absolutely formative for me as a young Black woman in Fort Worth,” she says. “I got to see these women on stage, and they were just radiant to me and had all this hope on their faces. And you could see their excitement for the future.”
Peoples immortalized her experiences of attending the pageant in Miss Juneteenth, her first feature. The film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January, then went on to win South by Southwest’s Louis Black “Lone Star” Award. (Though SXSW was canceled this year, the festival still gave out its annual honors to filmmakers.) Most movie theaters remain shuttered because of the pandemic, but the film will be available to stream online starting on Juneteenth, the oldest holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. On June 19, 1865, two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation took effect, news of their freedom finally reached enslaved African Americans in Galveston. Parades, barbecues, parties, and pageants have long existed as celebrations on this day, especially in Texas.
The director says she knew for a long time that she wanted to write something that focused on Juneteenth, and with the Miss Juneteenth pageant as the subject. “I’ve been thinking of Miss Juneteenth all my life,” Peoples says. And it couldn’t come at a more relevant time.
By the time the movie officially releases on June 19, the United States will be in its fourth week of protests spurred by recent killings of Black people at the hands of police officers. As Americans reckon with their fraught history regarding how Black people are treated, and the institutional racism that’s ingrained in the fabric of society, we find Juneteenth entering the conversation with more consideration than ever. In recent weeks, major corporations and companies including Twitter, Lyft, and Nike have moved to recognize Juneteenth as an official paid holiday for their employees. All of the conversation surrounding the holiday may even be the push it needs to be recognized as a national holiday in all 50 states. (As of now, 47 states recognize Juneteenth as a holiday, according to a Congressional Research Service report. Texas was the first state to recognize June 19 as a holiday, in 1980.)
For Peoples, it was also imperative that the Black community she grew up with in Fort Worth was reflected in the film. That’s why during the summer of 2019, Peoples shot the drama in the Southside area of Fort Worth and in Como, a historically African American area in the city. “You obviously know that Fort Worth is a big city, but the Southside and Lake Como, they feel like little country towns because they’re close-knit Black communities,” she says. She also made a point to cast Texans in the film, including actresses Chikaeze and Liz Mikel from Dallas, and Kendrick Sampson, who grew up in Houston. “I have to have a strong sense of authenticity in representing the world, and especially that community, because that is where I’m from,” Peoples explains. “They’re so near and dear to my heart, so I wanted to cast as specifically as possible to the region or have actors that could pull off the region.”
Miss Juneteenth’s setting is also important to understanding Fort Worth’s identity. The city is known as Cowtown because of its history in the cattle trade and Western cowboy culture that still runs deep today. Fort Worth is home of the first indoor rodeo, the world’s largest honky-tonk (Billy Bob’s), and the Fort Worth Stockyards, where a cattle drive happens twice a day. Fort Worth has long presented itself as a cowboy epicenter, but Black people have often been left out of cowboy history and culture, as well as the city’s narrative. Black musicians, including Texan artists like Solange and Beyoncé Knowles, Megan Thee Stallion, Leon Bridges, and Lizzo, have elevated visuals of Southern Black cowboy culture through their aesthetic and music videos.
If you go to Fort Worth’s Southside today, you’ll see Black people of all ages riding horses on residential streets. It wasn’t unusual for me or my cousins to hop on the back of one of my Uncle Tip’s horses and galavant through the neighborhood while we were growing up there. Because of the sense of pride Peoples gained watching people carry themselves with dignity and respect in these communities, her stories tend to center on people who are a part of them. “For me, it’s important to see those stories really with Black women leads that you don’t often get to see, with communities that you don’t often get to see,” she says.
Black women’s fight for independence is a through-line in Miss Juneteenth, as much as what the pageant represents to the lineage of mothers and daughters who have competed in the event. Long after she was in the pageant, Turquoise now searches for her own freedom. She repeatedly rejects suitors who promise to take care of her, instead working long hours to provide for herself and Kai. “I really wanted to tell a story about a Black woman with a dream deferred that just knows somewhere in her she wants something to herself, even if she can’t define it,” Peoples says.
She isn’t the only one. Kai aspires to dance and, much to Turquoise’s chagrin, frequently lets her mother know she wants to join the team at her school. Instead of competing in the pageant, Kai dreams of being on the Fabulous Dancing Dolls squad (featured at the beginning of Beyoncé’s 2019 film Homecoming) for Southern University’s Human Jukebox marching band, and would rather spend her time perfecting dance routines than performing Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” poem in front of a pageant audience.
While Turquoise has hopes for Kai to have a better life, she’s simultaneously trying to reconcile her own dreams, which she feels like she left behind along the way, and create a better future for herself and her daughter, Peoples explains. The crown didn’t magically make her dreams come true, but Turquoise understands that hard work and sacrifice can get you only so far. The choices we make also have an impact on the outcome of our lives. “Ain’t nothing wrong with trying to do better,” Turquoise says in the film. “That’s the American dream.”