Fifteen years ago, Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie) was crowned Miss Juneteenth (2020) in her small hometown in Texas–a pageant for Black teenage girls named for the anniversary holiday celebrating the 1865 date it was announced that the enslaved in the state of Texas were now free, June 19th, which came to be called by the portmanteau “Juneteenth” (the film was released in 2020, a year ahead of President Joe Biden naming Juneteenth a federal holiday in 2021). She won a full scholarship to any one of the HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) of her choice, which was to be her ticket out of her family’s working-class poverty and would put her on the road to financial and societal success.
As we find out as the movie progresses, this road is well-traveled, proven and assured, by its previous and by its successive Miss Juneteenth pageant winners before and since Turquoise. But primarily, we learn how and why Turquoise ended up on another pathway entirely–it is her cocktail bar co-worker, Betty Ray (Liz Mikel), who remarks in the trailer, “I will never get over seeing Miss Juneteenth cleaning toilets!”–which is why she is determined that her daughter, Kai (Alexis Chikaeze, whose remarkable resemblance to Beharie must be noted), win Miss Juneteenth, like she did, but take that well-traveled, proven and assured road that she missed.
As written and directed by Baylor alumna and Texas native Channing Godfrey Peoples, this is not a film looking to judge Turquoise or even condemn her in any way. As the film reveals the situations of the past through the relationships in the present, with some outright surprises, and you come to understand exactly how much Turquoise had stacked against her back then, you realize what a blankety-blank miracle it is that she won. Certainly she does. Which is why she’s not content just letting this chance go, in the face of opposition from everyone, including her daughter; in the face of a whack-a-mole of challenges that keep springing up at every step forward; and in the face of common sense, to the more stable-utilities-minded of us.
Plus the film even allows you to figure out some things on your own; where’s Turquoise coming from on the bus all the time?
Yes, you will guess the kind of afterschool-special ending of the pageant. No, no prizes there for you.
You will not guess how the story ends for Turquoise. Which is pretty cool.