Knowledge is Power series: Mississippi Masala

Mississippi Masala image
(Image from Google)

When one thinks of interracial dating in the context of the U.S., most likely he or she imagines a POC dating or marrying someone who is white European-American. Even in modern entertainment that lean progressive, such as Master of None (on Netflix), this idea continues to be reinforced, i.e. brown South Asian American falls in love with someone outside his group, a white American woman.

I do understand the appeal of such a narrative. After all, much of the publishing world and entertainment industry is still dominated by white folks, and in cases like MoN, it’s tough to be popular without including a white face. Yet, for many of us, who do date outside our ethnicity but often with other POC, this exclusion of our experiences from the mass media is glaring.

Mississippi Masala fills that gap. And does so with such clarity in vision that sometimes, apart from the obvious youthfulness of its leads, I forget this movie was in theaters back in 1991.

Mississippi Masala , directed by Mira Nair (of Monsoon Wedding fame), is about a Indian-Ugandan family who is exiled from Uganda by the dictator Idi Amin. They flee to Mississippi, where their daughter meets and falls in love with a black American man. This causes tension between both the Indian and black American community.

I am trying not to give anything major away in terms of plot, since I really do want you to watch this film. But what I can say is Mississippi Masala represents to me the standard for how modern movies dealing with interracial and POC relations should be compared to. Unlike movies like The Namesake, based on a novel by Indian-American write Jhumpa Lahiri (please avoid her work at all costs), Mississipi Masala doesn’t stick to simple plot devices. There is no kumbaya moment where the black and South Asian communities in that area of Mississippi get along. Instead, what Nair shows us is the anti-black racism among South Asians (as well as the colorism that negatively affects darker-skinned Indians) and also the more right-wing elements of certain African leaders on the continent, such as Idi Amin, who not only excluded non-black African POC from his movement, but also anyone who was socialist or communist. Fun fact: he ended up in Saudi Arabia later in life, the cradle of western-backed and idiotic dictators.

Mira Nair is one of my favorite directors. Although I hated The Reluctant Fundamentalist, because I did feel it unfortunately played into the stereotypical portrayal of all brown men as somehow foreign and all of America as whiteness, she is incredibly important for POC directors and artists. She inspired me to keep tackling difficult subjects even if it’s complex and some in the audience are made uncomfortable.

Also, if you haven’t noticed, this movie stars Denzel Washington, before he began acting like variations of Denzel in future films (although that’s still way better than others). Like Nair, his career was just beginning to take off. He had played revolutionary actor, Steve Biko, in Cry Freedom before this. So, he didn’t have to take this role, and expend his energy on such a project that would probably be seen by only people like you and me anyway. But he did. Cause to him and Nair, this story, away from The White Gaze, was necessary for us to hear and acknowledge.

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