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‘Miss Juneteenth’ is a story of black women in a rush to define themselves

Aided by Maya Angelou’s ‘Phenomenal Woman,’ a mother prods her daughter toward something better

Almost no one knows how to be phenomenal when they’re 14, but that hasn’t stopped generations of black women from trying to get their daughters and nieces to step into it anyway.

Phenomenal Woman endures as an invocation for young black women who are prodded by their elders to recite the poem as a way of speaking excellence into reality. And this is how it exists in Miss Juneteenth, the first feature film from writer/director Channing Godfrey Peoples, which debuts on video on demand on the 155th anniversary of the film’s namesake celebration.

Nicole Beharie stars as Turquoise Jones, a young woman and former Miss Juneteenth, who is raising her 14-year-old daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) in a small Texas town and hoping to vault her into a better life with a scholarship to a historically black college. This vehicle of social and economic mobility is the prize for winning the town’s annual Miss Juneteenth pageant. For Turquoise, it’s a glimmering opportunity for a do-over for her own life, defined by an endless cycle of work, stress and an ever-present scarcity of time and money.

And the talent that will notch this scholarship? A recitation, set off by perfect posture, diction and ladylike grace, of Phenomenal Woman.

Maya Angelou wrote Phenomenal Woman when she was 50. Before it was published in 1995 in a volume of the same name, Phenomenal Woman ran in a 1978 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine. It’s one of her best-known works, along with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, And Still I Rise and On the Pulse of Morning, the poem she read at President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration in 1993.

Nicole Beharie stars as Turquoise in Miss Juneteenth.

Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

It’s a poem about a black woman coming to love and appreciate herself, who is able to push past the beauty standards and expectations that are stacked against her in order to stand tall in her own light. Even though Angelou was 50 when she wrote it, generations of black women have attempted to get their teen daughters, nieces, sisters and cousins to utter the words with the resolve of a grown, fully self-actualized woman. They deploy Angelou’s lyrical breadcrumbs — It’s in the arch of my back, The sun of my smile, The ride of my breasts, The grace of my style — as a guide and inoculation against self-doubt.

Kai, of course, has her own interests. She wants to join a competitive dance team, and her mother’s insistence that she participate in a tradition laden with dated ideas about femininity and respectability grates on her. Chikaeze’s expressions are priceless as the reluctant and uninterested Kai goes through the motions of a charm school course on fine dining, unable to distinguish between salad and main course utensils. Peoples’ deft touch in these moments is satirical without being too pointed.

The power of Angelou’s words are steeped in her experience as a survivor of childhood sexual assault, an artist, a former sex worker and a person who made the pilgrimage to New York as a young woman to create the person who would eventually become “Dr. Angelou.” And yet Kai, like so many 14-year-olds, has no real knowledge of the life and earned sensuality that gives Phenomenal Woman its weight. So she slumps her shoulders and mumbles as she reads the lines to her mother while rehearsing.

“Come on,” Turquoise nags. “Be serious.”

Alexis Chikaeze stars as Kai in Miss Juneteenth.

Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

There is a weary urgency in Turquoise’s plea, one that Beharie captures with subtle, beautiful control. This is a woman desperate to steer her child clear of life’s potholes. But of course, it’s figuring out how to navigate them that provides the confidence necessary to own the idea of being a “Phenomenal Woman” in the first place. That’s the heartbreaking conundrum at the heart of Miss Juneteenth’s coming-of-age story. You can’t hurry wisdom.

The quiet crescendo of Peoples’ story takes place at the pageant, where Kai finds a way to make Phenomenal Woman her own. In doing so, she invokes the spirit of Angelou, it’s just one that’s often obscured because Angelou has existed in the public imagination so long as a wise national grandmother. Kai’s Angelou is the spirited dancing queen of New York’s downtown theater scene, the Angelou of Calypso Heat Wave.

Juneteenth celebrates the day enslaved people in Texas finally learned that they were free, on June 19, 1865, two years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The pageant that bears its name is a living artifact intended to restore that which enslavement stole from black women: education, agency, an affirmation of black beauty. But its methods can be stifling. Through her round-the-way-girl protagonist, Peoples reminds Turquoise and all of us that there’s more than one way to get free.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.