Monday, July 5, 2010

Mississippi Masala

I just watched Mississippi Masala - a film I've been wanting to see for a long time, mostly because I really enjoy Denzel Washington. The story addresses several themes that interest me: racism, the South, the Indian Diaspora in Africa.

The story is about Mina, the daughter of an Indian family that fled Uganda after Idi Amin expelled the Asians in the the '70s. They end up in Mississippi running a liquor store and a working and living in a sketchy motel. While this seemed a little random to me, I read that director, Mira Nair, came up with the story after meeting Indian-Ugandan families running motels in Mississippi. I don't know if there is still such a community, but I can see why Nair found it an interesting topic.

The story confronts inter-racism among people of color. As Mina and Demitrius (Washington's character) develop a romance, she is at first accepted by his family. His brother states "You're like us, you're Indian, but you've never been to India, and we're African, but we've never been to Africa." She confounds them, that she could be both Indian and Ugandan. Her father holds on fervently to his Ugandan identity - despite having been expelled. His deepest wound is the memory of his Ugandan friend telling him that Uganda was now for Africans, Black Africans. He conveniently blocks the memory that his friend also saved him from imprisonment and helped his family leave Uganda safely.

The tension begins when the inter-racial (and inter-minority) relationship is discovered by the community. The black community criticizes Demitrius for trying to date a white girl (even though it is clear Mina is not white). Mina is sequestered by her family, her parents distraught that she would date (and have sex with) a black man. The Indian community's feelings about Black Americans changes when it involves Mina. They are fine do business and even sit and have tea with Demitrius, but not when it involves Mina. Even Mina's parent's liquor store, set squarely in a poor, black neighborhood, is symbolic. They are willing to sell alcohol to the community, but not to learn anything about the community itself.

In a conversation between Mina's father and Demitrius, the rift between Indians and Africans rears it's head. Part of the reason Indians were expelled from Uganda was a failure to assimilate into Ugandan society. Indians did not allow their daughters to marry Ugandan men. The Indian community was also financially successful, sparking some resentment which also lead to the expulsion.

Mina's father, who talked of Uganda in loving terms and dreamed of returning, had to admit to himself that even there, he would never have wanted Mina to marry a Black Ugandan. I'm not sure he ever really changes that sentiment. In his last scene, he won't even say goodbye to Mina on the phone as she tells him she is going to run away Demitrius - just as he never said goodbye to his Ugandan friend.

In the closing scenes, he returns to Uganda. He sees his old home in ruin, he sees his home city of Kampala in poverty. But he also sees Black Ugandans in the street and smiles. Maybe he finally accepted that his friend was right to say what he said?

The film is interesting because it frankly confronts the fact that what happened to Indians in Ugandan was sad, that it ruined lives. It could have been done in a better way. But that ultimately, it was true that the Indian community held racist beliefs about Black Ugandans and that things couldn't have gone on in the same way forever. As Mina's father wandered around his ruined home, I thought about the Portuguese who left Mozambique after independence. How they really felt Mozambican, had never been to Portugal before, how they lamented what they had to leave behind. But that it couldn't have gone on that way forever, with the Portuguese living in one world, and Black Mozambicans living in another.

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