Learn more about Peltz-Steele v. UMass Faculty Federation at Court Listener (complaint) and the Liberty Justice Center. The case is now on appeal in the First Circuit as no. 22-1466 (PACER paywall). Please direct media inquiries to Kristen Williamson.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

'Miss Juneteenth' speaks both to problems of our times and to timeless problems

Thanks to the Duke (University) Screen/Society, yesterday, I virtually attended a screening and discussion of the 2020 film from Vertical Entertainment, Miss Juneteenth.  It is an insightful and gratifying film, so I want to make this note of it.  In our covid era, it's easy to miss new releases.

Written and directed by Channing Godfrey Peoples, Miss Juneteenth is the story of Fort Worth, Texas, teen Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) and her mom, Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie), as Kai prepares to participate in the Miss Juneteenth beauty pageant, a pageant that her mother happens to have won, back in the day.

Yet that description unfairly oversimplifies the film, as would any description that confined the story by race or class.  The film richly portrays Turquoise and Kai's lives.  It explores mother-daughter conflict, romantic entanglements, and socioeconomic struggles. Simultaneously, the film comments softly, not heavy-handedly, on pageant culture, civil rights, the American dream, and, of course, never trumpeted yet omnipresent, the glorious but unfulfilled promise of freedom marked by Juneteenth.

In a striking scene set in a Juneteenth museum, the young contestants are being oriented on Juneteenth history by a passionate docent when the schoolmarmish pageant wrangler directs the kids' attention to framed pictures of past Juneteenth queens.  The docent was speaking to the legacy of slavery, driven out of the American South, while the pageant director educates the girls on such etiquette nuances as table manners imported with the Pilgrims.  The girls' gazes drift to the latter display, which, I contend, speaks subtly but powerfully to how African-American communities have long wrestled with the fine line between cultural subjugation and assimilation that courses through American history from Reconstruction to Civil Rights to present day.  I'm reminded at once of Mike Pence's oddly third-person reference from Fort McHenry in August to "American people ... standing with ... our African-American neighbors" and Dulce Sloan's missive this week on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, "The Messed Up History of Black Hair in America."

A character in the film once comments, "Ain’t no American dream for black folks.”  As we wondered at the latest news of government ineptitude yesterday morning, contemplating how our salaries are going down while our workloads are going up, my wife speculated that the anger and resentment that people both black and white feel toward the lack of opportunity for upward mobility in this country is really much the same.  The difference, she suggested, is that black people have always known that meritocracy is an American myth, while white people are just figuring it out.  (She cited Michael Sandel on WBUR talking about his Tyranny of Merit.)

Miss Juneteenth has given me a lot to chew over.  I haven't even mentioned my own daughter's foray into the pageant world when she was a teen: Miss Rhode Island High School 2016!  In Miss Juneteenth, as Turquoise is working herself to death to scrape together the money to support Kai's pageant bid, Kai's father, Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson), shakes his head: "An $800 dress just don’t make no sense to me."

Word for word, I swear, Peoples stole that line from me.

Here is the trailer from Vertical Entertainment.


Happy Constitution Day.

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