She lays a pillow on the floor in front of the couch. She sits you down on the floor before her and gets right to work with the hair box, grease, gel, comb and brush next to her. Looking back, having my hair done by my mom was one of our most intimate moments. I’ve gotten in trouble for not holding my head straight more times than I can count. I can still remember holding the floor for dear life as she combed through my knots. I remember falling asleep on her lap and waking up feeling like my face had been pulled tight, back into my hair. I didn’t know it then, but my mom was giving me all of her love in those moments. She wanted me to look nice. She would admire me afterwards, like she knew she was succeeding at something. Looking back, I feel nothing but love for those moments.
That’s how I felt when I watched the 2020 film, Miss Juneteenth. Starring Nicole Beharie, Alexis Chikaeze, and Kendrick Sampson, Miss Juneteenth is a generational story of Black motherhood and womanhood. It is also a film about liberation in one of its most intimate forms. Turquoise “Turq” Jones (played by Beharie) is a dedicated mother who is preparing her daughter, Kai (Chikaeze), for the Miss Juneteenth pageant- a pageant that she won back in her own time. The film follows them through this journey, but it is also follows Turq through her own.
Juneteenth celebrates the emancipation of slaves in Texas, in 1865- two years after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Today, Juneteenth is celebrated as more than that. Especially this year, it felt like a celebration of Black solidarity more than ever before. The film takes this history of Juneteenth and marries if perfectly with the present and future of Black livelihood in America. The cinematography gives you an intimate presence of the local community. Sitting in a crowded bar and watching quiet moments between Kai and Turq felt so personal and powerful.
Turq and Kai are both thoughtfully written characters, supported by strong performances that stick with you. They share this individuality and bond that differentiates, but also connects, mother to daughter- generation to generation. At the center of their story is the Miss Juneteenth pageant. The Miss Juneteenth pageant is a symbol for opportunity that Turq feels like she wasted, so she wants her daughter to have it. With an offer of a scholarship to the winners HBCU of choice, it is not lost on anyone how important this pageant is for the working class women competing. Kai is far from interested in the whole process, however, and there’s no wonder why, when the atmosphere is heavy with judgement, the women are obsessed with Western poise, and Kai is left in a position where she feels like she must forgo her entire entity in order to be accepted. It’s hard not to cringe every time she’s around the pageant women and girls. You can feel the side-eyes and hear the whispers screaming at you through the television- raised noses looking down upon you because they feel like you and your family haven’t done “enough.”
Turq and Kai go through everything with grace though, and it’s the bond that they share that pushes each other and the film forward. Channing Godfrey Peoples seemed to perfectly capture the unspoken tenderness and understanding between a Black mother and her daughter. She also placed Turq on a path to personal liberation. She spends long hours working at a local hole-in-the-wall, but her ambition and smarts are bigger than the small town she’s from. Turq gives her all into what she loves, and at times it seems to curtail her own happiness. But in the end, she chooses herself. She puts that energy back into new decisions for her family. Mother and daughter lean their heads on each other with a feeling of new possibilities before them. She is a ton lighter. She could almost fly.
Growing up with a single mother really makes you view them as miracle-workers amongst humans. I do not want to perpetuate the mythically strong Black woman, but there’s not doubt that my mother is my superhero. Miss Juneteenth feels like a mirror of that love I have for my mom, of those moments of her spending hours weaving and combing my hair.. This film feels like a mirror of a Black mother’s love. It feels like home.