A collage of movie posters

What to watch: Get into the spirit of Juneteenth

Celebrate the holiday with these films, TV shows and more, as recommended by VCU faculty.

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On Monday, Juneteenth marks its third year as a federal holiday. It commemorates the day – June 19, 1865 – when Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, and enslaved Black Americans there finally learned that they were free, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued.

Though long celebrated by Black Americans, Juneteenth is still a relatively new holiday to many. For those who don’t know much about it or are looking to recognize or celebrate the day, VCU News asked faculty to recommend films, TV shows and more that offer engagement around the holiday.

The Learning Tree

(Prime Video)

A movie poster for \"The Learning Tree\"

Gordon Parks’ film adaptation of his own semi-autobiographical novel “The Learning Tree” maps African American cultural frameworks of family, survival and strength, establishing a coming-of-age narrative that resists earlier systemic erasures and stereotypes that merely exploit Black trauma. Newt Winger is a young man growing up in a world where he is caught between multiple forces — not simply racism but questions of loyalty, justice and peer pressure.

With visually stunning imagery that explores Black life in 1920s Kansas (Parks’ own birthplace in 1912) through a lens of American realism, the film was the first major motion picture directed by an African American director for a major studio, Warner Brothers-Seven Arts. Unfortunately, not nearly as well-known as Parks’ 1971 blaxploitation-structured effort, “Shaft” (also an excellent film), “The Learning Tree” complicates the usual stories of white violence and the desire for retribution, creating nuance rather than relying on the familiar racist/not racist dichotomy that frequently robs more authentic and necessary moments of their importance.

— Keith Byron Kirk, Ph.D., assistant professor of theatre

The HistoryMakers digital archive

(Online via VCU Libraries)

A collage of black and white photos accompainied by the text \"THE HISTORY MAKERS THE DIGITAL REPOSITORY FOR THE BLACK EXPERIENCE\"

What better way to learn about Juneteenth than from intimate video interviews with notable African Americans from all walks of life? The HistoryMakers contains over 2,700 oral history interviews, broken down into almost 150,000 bite-size stories. 

Starting from the first recordings in 1993 and growing ever since, this online resource features memories stretching back to the 1890s and across the nation. It includes many stories of Juneteenth celebrations big and small: Just search for “Juneteenth” on the HistoryMakers homepage. Watch and listen to these stories of Black life, resilience and celebration on your computer or mobile device, using your access from VCU Libraries.

— John Glover, humanities research librarian and associate professor, VCU Libraries

Miss Juneteenth

(BET+ and Prime Video)

A photo of a woman sitting on the floor wearing a red dress, cow boy boots, and a crown. White texts over the image reads \"Miss Juneteenth\"

In a debut feature film from writer-director Channing Godfrey Peoples, “Miss Juneteenth” is a coming-of-age story about a single-parent mother, Turquoise Jones (played by Nicole Beharie), and her pursuit to pass on the legacy of the Miss Juneteenth crown to her teen daughter, Kai. The film explores traditions while prioritizing giving voice to Black women and girls in a world where this is often not afforded.

Set in Fort Worth, Texas, this is a story that takes on multiple tasks of explaining the meaning and significance of Juneteenth — highlighting messages of courage, solidarity and hope — while also showcasing the Miss Juneteenth pageant, an annual competition that awards the winner a scholarship to a historically Black college or university of their choosing. For both Turquoise and Kai, the pageant becomes a space for each of them, in their own way, to navigate and find themselves and how they fit within society. Additionally, both are provided a platform to (re)dream new futures.

Overall, “Miss Juneteenth” is a timely film that not only pays homage to the holiday it’s named after, but is also a celebration of persistence, community support and Black girlhood. 

— Grace Gipson, Ph.D., assistant professor of African American studies

The 1619 Project docuseries


A photo of a Black child wearing an american flag as a cape. At the top is text the reads \"The 1619 Project docuseries\"

“The 1619 Project” docuseries is an adaptation of the powerful writings by Nikole Hannah-Jones of the same title, which she produced for The New York Times Magazine starting in August 2019 on the 400th anniversary of the beginnings of American slavery. These writings also form the book publication “The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story,” and the children’s book “The 1619 Project: Born on the Water” by Hannah-Jones and Renée Watson. The 1619 Project’s intent is to contextualize and reframe American history accurately and authentically to better understand the consequences of slavery and to center the contributions of Black Americans within this narrative. 

The six-part docuseries hosted by Hannah-Jones aired in January-February 2023. While each episode is based on an essay from the book, the docuseries artfully weaves together threads from the past while connecting them to modern-day systematic oppression. The ability to use film as a means of storytelling and build on these past-present connections through interviews and family history provides viewers with a human-centric approach that resonates throughout the series. As a Jan. 26 article from The New York Times Magazine states, “It is a thrill to see it reinvented for television, to watch as she brings to life onscreen the urgent contemporary and historical themes that have animated this groundbreaking work of journalism from the beginning.” 

— Chrystal Carpenter, head of special collections and archives, VCU Libraries

High on the Hog / season 1, episode 4


A poster with hands holding food ingerients and a plate of food. In the middle is text that reads \"High on the Hog\"

“High on the Hog” takes a look at Black chefs and how they influence the nation of taste. Episode 4, titled “Freedom,” celebrates Juneteenth in Texas, where it all started. It highlights the history of Juneteenth-themed desserts — raw raspberry-hibiscus cheesecake, a brown-butter apple pie and a four-layer red velvet cake. There is a use of bright colors, especially red, representing the blood shed by enslaved ancestors, as well as inspiration from merchandise, decorations and other paraphernalia seen during Juneteenth celebrations. This episode also touches on enslaved and freedmen who became America’s first Black cowboys and the history of Texas BBQ.

What I enjoyed most about this episode is when Jerrelle Guy, author of the cookbook “Black Girl Baking,” mentioned that the kitchen is a safe space and provides a feeling of empowerment for Black women who maybe don’t have a space like that. This is a must-see for Juneteenth and all year round. 

— Kristen Brown, Ed.D., associate professor of educational leadership

Sorry to Bother You

(Prime Video)

A poster with a man wearing a suit and a white head band with blood on it. Text above the man reads \"Sorry to Bother You\"

The film “Sorry to Bother You” is a wild romp through the rabbit hole of contemporary corporate America. The film follows Cassius Green, a Black telemarketer in Oakland, California, who discovers he can use his “white voice” to climb his company’s ladder to success, while getting sucked into the seedy underworld of the American corporate elite.

The feature debut from musician, writer and veteran political organizer Boots Riley, the film draws from Riley’s own experience in telemarketing and manages to levy a trenchant critique against American class society and racial politics, all with an undeniable spring in its step.  

Indeed, its optimistic, forward-looking orientation is what makes this a standout film for viewing on the Juneteenth holiday. While Riley’s portrait of contemporary American society is deeply critical, and at times disturbing in its lurid illustration of Black exploitation, it is at its heart a film about the struggle for justice. For as Riley told an interviewer, “If there’s a fight going on, then that’s the hope right there.”

In all its internet-obsessed, disjointed glory, the film is a time machine showing us where we are and where we could be. And with its box office figures smashing all prior expectations, especially for the fresh minds reading this, “Sorry to Bother You” is a beacon of brighter days to come, in more ways than one.

— Prashanth Kamalakanthan, assistant professor of cinema

Further watching

The contributors above also recommended the following material to celebrate Juneteenth:

  • Just Mercy (film) 
  • The African Americans (TV docuseries)
  • Slavery by Another Name (documentary) 
  • 13th (documentary)
  • Fight the Power: The Movements that Changed America (documentary)
  • I Am Not Your Negro (documentary) 
  • Juneteenth: Are We Really Free? (podcast)
  • The Juneteenth Mixtape (podcast)
  • Carver-VCU Partnership Oral History Collection (digital oral history archive)
  • Glory (film)
  • Daughters of the Dust (film)
  • Black Panther (film)
  • Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am (documentary)
  • Amazing Grace: Aretha Franklin (documentary)
  • In Our Mother’s Gardens (documentary)
  • Summer of Soul (documentary)
  • The Woman King (film)
  • Descendant (documentary)
  • Dear White People (TV series)
  • Black-ish / season 4, episode 1: “Juneteenth” (TV series)
  • Atlanta / season 1, episode 9: “Juneteenth” (TV series)