Beverly Hills, 90210 was already a phenomenon when Kelly Taylor (Jennie Garth) refused to choose between Jason Priestley’s Brandon Walsh and Luke Perry’s Dylan McKay, rejecting both her suitors with the declaration “I choose me.” It was a surprisingly feminist moment for a character who had been introduced in the show’s early days as a somewhat superficial California Girl stereotype, and as 90210 progressed, Kelly grew into someone more complex than her initial origins might suggest. And since that 1995 episode, “Hello Life, Goodbye Beverly Hills,” aired, “I choose me” has been echoed throughout various forms of TV and film. Margaret Lyons at Vulture noted the “I choose me” moments in Scandal; filmmaker Diablo Cody referenced the line in a piece she wrote for Entertainment Weekly about the 90210 spin-off that aired on the CW (not the meta reboot!); and Heather Schwedel wrote for Slate about an “I choose me” homage in The Bold Type.
All of these uses share a certain DNA that you can trace back to Kelly’s declaration—to the rejection of a love triangle and the assertion of self. But you might remember that Kelly kept bouncing back and forth between Brandon and Dylan for seasons to come; her singleness on 90210 didn’t last very long. Those developments don’t erase the power of her statement, necessarily, but it feels rare that a TV show or film uses “I choose me” and then sticks with it. What are the next steps? How does one move forward, purposefully alone?
Perhaps that’s why Channing Godfrey Peoples’s Miss Juneteenth feels so revelatory in its handling of this concept. (Have you read Ciara’s review, in which she praises the film as “quietly radical”? You should!) In Miss Juneteenth, Peoples’s debut feature, the filmmaker gives us both the satisfaction of “I choose me” and the difficult follow-through to make it real. Nothing about the decision nor about what comes next is easy. But Miss Juneteenth builds its protagonist, former pageant queen turned bartender and single mom Turquoise Jones, so thoughtfully, and Nicole Beharie inhibits the role so fully, that you’ll feel a deep kinship with Turq. Her strength is palpable, and her prioritization of herself is lovely to watch.
Set outside Fort Worth, Texas, Miss Juneteenth follows 30something Turq, a woman divided by an array of responsibilities and identities. As we listen to “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the song referred to as the Black National Anthem that Beyoncé covered at Coachella and later released as a single, we watch Turq take some time for herself. In her bedroom, alone, she pulls out a hatbox and retrieves a tiara from inside, brushing a soft layer of dust off of it. She holds a sparkly and sequined yellow gown up against her body. She closes her eyes, imagining herself wearing the gown and the tiara, a creamy Miss Juneteenth sash draped across her torso, her hand waving to unseen but surely adoring crowds. “Let us march on until victory is won,” goes the song, and that line’s sentiment of resilience in the face of struggle is mirrored by Turq’s next actions. She puts the tiara back in the hatbox, she puts her gown back in her closet. Next time we see her, she’s in a tank top and denim short-shorts, a yellow bandanna wrapped around her hair, washing a bathroom floor and scrubbing a toilet. At Wayman’s BBQ Lounge, a beloved hole-in-the-wall restaurant and bar, Turq does it all. The color of her bandanna brings to mind that now-hidden-away gown, but the young woman Turq was is otherwise a memory.
At Wayman’s, Turq cleans, she serves, she handles money, she stocks the bar, she waits on tables. Years ago, Turq had won the Miss Juneteenth pageant, a Texas tradition that tests girls on their etiquette, their talent, and their poise and rewards them with a full scholarship to any historically black college or university. A portrait of Turq in that treasured tiara-and-gown combination hangs in Wayman’s. But then Turq got pregnant, and she had her daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze), and she was forced to give that all up. Miss Juneteenth rules barred her from walking the stage the next year after her win and crowning her successor; the organization that organized the tournament turned their back on her. Her mother, an alcoholic who retreats into fire-and-brimstone Christianity as a penance for herself, essentially abandoned Turq. And although Ronnie (the honey-voiced Kendrick Sampson, of Insecure), Kai’s father, is around, Turq doesn’t wear her engagement or her wedding rings anymore. She’s been let down by Ronnie too many times.
So on her own, Turq fights against the destitute circumstances within which she seems trapped. She strings together a variety of part-time jobs; she defers payment on some bills in order to pay others; she shops nearly exclusively at thrift stores; she keeps note of how much she makes in tips in a little notepad. It’s all for Kai, whom Turq pressures to enter into the Miss Juneteenth pageant now that she’s old enough. If Kai wins, the scholarship would change her life. But before then, Turq has to figure out how to pay for all the accompanying costs: the $400 registration fee, the $800 gown, an etiquette class, various other expenses. This is all in investment in Kai, Turq figures, but Kai doesn’t want to do any of this. She wants to join the dance team, she wants to date a boy she likes at school, she doesn’t care about learning which glass to use for white wine or which fork is best for salad. “I don’t want her in no thrift-shop dress, thinking she less than. I’m gonna make sure that she something that we ain’t. She my dream now,” Turq says to Ronnie of their daughter, but she discounts her daughter’s own dreams in that declaration.
The friction between Turq and Kai builds as pageant day approaches, especially when Kai learns that Turq used to strip to provide for their family. But Peoples is telling a parallel story about cyclical poverty and systemic racism, too, and how Black Southern life perseveres (related: you should watch Bull!), and about the experience of Black women specifically within all that. In addition to the shifts at Wayman’s, Turq also works as a mortuary cosmetologist at a funeral home owned by Bacon (Akron Watson), a man who doesn’t hide his romantic feelings toward Turq. “You need someone to take you off your feet,” he says, and it’s clear Turq has heard this often. Bacon covets her beauty. Ronnie looks at her like he’s constantly in awe. Turq’s own mother doesn’t understand why Turq doesn’t use her looks to get what she wants, and diminishes Turq’s work ethic in the process. “I won that pageant because I worked hard. It takes more than looks to survive,” Turq insists, but her mother is unyielding: “Not in this world. Not if you know how to use them. Looks is all a woman needs.”
But Turq knows that not to be true, and even if it were, it isn’t enough for her. Beharie in these scenes, when others attempt to decide for her what her life should be like, communicates a mixture of wryness, tenderness, and toughness. Her face is alternately steely and supple, making clear her desires or her frustrations. Most often, those very people who admire her are also those who push against her—and they happen to be men. Men who own their own businesses, like Wayman, who lectures Turq on wanting to make some improvements to his joint:
“The American Dream? Ain’t no American Dream for Black folks. We gotta hold onto what we got. It might not be as fancy as you want it around here, Miss Juneteenth, but it’s mine. I own it, free and clear. And the white people down at the city been trying to run me down for years, but I got my papers. When you get you something worth holding onto, you make sure can’t nobody take it from you, you hear me?”
Men like Ronnie, who fails to pay his half of Kai’s Miss Juneteenth expenses because he wants to use the money toward buying his own body shop so he can work for himself: “I couldn’t pass that up. Think about all the things I can do once that takes off. You just gotta give me just a little time.” And men like Bacon, who already owns his own business, who got a loan from a white-owned bank, and who judges Turq for how she lives, even as he attempts to woo her: “You’re too good of a woman to be living the way you do,” he says, the kind of compliment that’s really an insult. “I make it work,” Turq replies, but that statement is underscored by another later in the film, when Ronnie and Bacon nearly come to blows over her, and when they demand an answer for whom she’ll choose. This is when Turq’s “I choose me” moment arrives in the form of Beharie’s near-whisper of “I just want something for myself.” She says it softly, slowly, but surely. In her red mini-dress and cowboy boots, that old tiara on her head, Turq sits on her stoop, smoking a cigarette. The camera moves us closer and closer, never deviating from centering Beharie in the frame, lingering on her face, on the decisions being made there. On the confidence she is bringing forth, once more after a lifetime of doing so, for herself.
Another film might end here, allowing us to imagine what happens next for Turq and Kai, or leaving open the possibility that Kai wins Miss Juneteenth, that Ronnie or Bacon realizes their mistakes and apologize to Turq, that Turq’s mother becomes more loving toward her descendants. That’s not the kind of movie Miss Juneteenth is—it prefers precision over imagination, and so Kai loses the pageant. We never see Ronnie again, nor Turq’s mother, nor Bacon. What is more important to Turq’s journey is how she steps forward for herself, and that is where Peoples continues her focus. After a devastating heart attack, Wayman considers selling the lounge to that same bank he had railed against—but when Kai suggests a partnership, he listens to her proposal. He defers to her ideas; he knows the love she has for this place, how she calls it “my house,” how she knows all the customers by name, how she treats all their guests—women doing a coordinated two-step on the dance floor, men riding up on horses, a motorcycle gang—with respect and warmth. “I been holding it down for a long time around here,” Turq had said to Ronnie, but her observation about her marriage applies to her whole life. Wayman sees it, and he acquiesces to it. “I guess this is yours,” he says when handing Turq a leather briefcase with the bar’s deed inside. Miss Juneteenth was a part of Turq’s life that was ultimately denied her, but the next chapter of Turq’s life awaits—and she created it for herself.
Of course, we still live in a deeply imbalanced world. Do some research on Black woman-owned businesses, and you’ll seethe. American Express’s 2019 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report lays bare the hardships. From 2014 to 2019, businesses owned by Black women grew by 50%, more than double the overall rate of women-owned businesses, which was 21%. Yet almost inversely, businesses owned by Black women, which make up 21% of all women-owned businesses, make far less in revenue: an average of $24,000 vs. $142,900 among all women-owned businesses. According to the report, “The gap between African American/Black women-owned businesses’ average revenue and all women-owned businesses is the greatest of any minority.” Black women are doing more but earning far less, and the numbers are staggering.
Still, the ending of Miss Juneteenth presents a vision of hope. Turq, now a business owner, and Kai, in Turq’s repurposed Miss Juneteenth gown, sit together, side by side. Kai eats a plate of Wayman’s famous ribs; Turq, accepting now of her daughter’s disinterest in following her pageant path, offers an olive branch: “So when them dance team tryouts?” Kai rests her head on her mother’s shoulder, love and appreciation flowing between them both. It is a hard world, but they’ll face it together. “I choose me,” indeed.
Miss Juneteenth is currently available on VOD and for digital rental and purchase.
Image sources (in order of posting): Vertical Entertainment, Vertical Entertainment