USA, 1991, 118 min., Dir. Mira Nair
This is a story of disparate worlds coming together. After being forced out of Uganda by Idi Amin’s regime that is vilifying “Asians,” an Indian family eventually ends up in rural Mississippi, where their social and economic status is decidedly lower than in Africa.
The parents want daughter Mina to get settled and marry an Indian guy, but she doesn’t seem that interested. After Mina (the captivating Sarita Choudhury) meets Demetrius (the charismatic Denzel Washington) at a fender bender, they start seeing each other. Their connection is natural, visceral, and sexy. But the friends and family on both sides don’t approve of their relationship—and when things get difficult, the consequences are far-reaching.
Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala looks at the tricky business of love, race, class, and privilege. What makes it especially interesting is it is an examination of racial relations in the United States with almost no white people in it. (We white people love to be included in things! And then try to take over those things!) Even though the Indian Americans and African Americans are subject to the same racism and prejudice, their social mores are very different and they can have a hard time seeing what they share.
The portrayal of Mina and Demetrius’s cross-racial relationship doesn’t rely on the tired old tropes. Mina isn’t used as a stand-in for magical Asian spirituality for Demetrius to learn from, and his steadfast masculinity isn’t used to ground her in a conventional life. Instead, their union results in them both flying out of their accustomed orbits.
After you watch this film, Mira Nair’s past filmography is worth revisiting. She came into the spotlight with Salaam Bombay! (1988), which won the audience award at Cannes and was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign language film. She then switched over to the United States with Mississippi Masala (1991), and then back to India for the family drama Monsoon Wedding (2001). She explores the dynamics of US immigrant families in The Namesake (2006), based on the book by Jhumpa Lahiri and starring the great Irrfan Khan. Her other films include The Reluctant Fundamentalist from 2012 (with Riz Ahmed, eeeee!) and 2016’s Queen of Katwe (starring the terrific Lupita Nyong’o). Her next project is a TV miniseries of Vikram Seth’s wonderful, sprawling Indian novel A Suitable Boy. I absolutely can’t wait to watch it.
Available for rent at Scarecrow Video and King County Library.
More great films directed by women:
Brett Story's The Hottest August Jane Campion's The Piano Kasi Lemmons's Eve's Bayou Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird The Wachowskis' Jupiter Ascending Signe Baumane's Rocks in My Pockets Suzan Pitt's Asparagus Cheryl Dunye's The Watermelon Woman Claire Denis's Beau Travail