Updated: Feb 23, 2022
Watching Mira Nair’s film Mississippi Masala (1991) for the first time left me wishing I had watched it sooner. This two hour film contains volumes and deserves dissertations dedicated to its representation of the South Asian diaspora, South Asian Americans, and the first generation immigrant experience. I would also accept theses about how attractive Denzel Washington managed to look in a carpet-cleaning uniform and Sarita Chaudry’s thick, luscious hair. Here, I discuss Nair’s portrayal of solidarity and racism amongst Black and South Asian Americans and how it remains relevant today.
The film takes place in the early 1990s in Greenwood, Mississippi and portrays the story of star-crossed lovers Mina (Sarita Choudhury) and Demetrius (Denzel Washington). Mina and Demetrius have their meet-cute after she crashes into his van. The two exchange insurance information and meaningful looks as the audience swoons at their on-screen chemistry.
Demetrius grew up in Greenwood, where he and his family still live. After years of hard work and relationship-building within his community, he owns a successful carpet cleaning business. Mina works at Motel Monte Cristo, where she and her family, who immigrated to the United States from Uganda, live. As a child in Uganda, Mina lived with her family in relative luxury and comfort. However, they were forced to flee in 1972 when President Idi Amin announced, amid growing anti-Asian sentiment, that all Asians must leave Uganda within ninety days. They settle in Greenwood, Mississippi, where Mina’s mother Kinnu works at a liquor store, and her father Jay remains obsessed with returning to Uganda.
Black and Indian activists of the mid-twentieth century saw the American Civil Rights and Indian independence movements as parallel struggles. Both were marginalized groups attempting to cast off the shackles of their white oppressors, and thus expressed support for each others’ struggle. Such “colored cosmopolitanism” ranged from statements of sympathy to anti-racist organizing.
But solidarity between Black Americans and South Asians seemed to wane after the Civil Rights Movement ended, though South Asians and others continue to give colored cosmopolitanism lip service. Mississippi Masala illustrates this when Demetrius and his brother Tyrone are cleaning carpets at the Motel Monte Cristo. The Indian owner brings chai for the two men and spews platitudes about racial harmony amongst minorities: “Black, brown, yellow, Mexican, Puerto Rican, we are all the same. As long as you’re not white, it means you’re colored… All us people of color must stick together… United we stand. Divided we fall.” Similarly, Mina’s father Jay, who was a lawyer in Uganda, also expresses his comradeship with black Ugandans, considering himself “a defender of blacks.” Before Jay leaves Uganda, he proclaims that he is, “Ugandan first, Indian second,” a statement that feels ironic when he is subsequently shown at his lavish estate, served by black domestic laborers.
When Mina’s friends and family discover that she and Demetrius have had sex, the rosy narrative of colored cosmopolitanism changes drastically. “Stay away from our women!” says Anil, the Monte Cristo manager, to Demetrius. As soon as Demetrius and Mina became intimately involved, the South Asian characters moved from affirmations of racial unity to “us vs. them” catastrophizing. “We stick to our kind!” declares Jay.
Unsurprisingly, Mina and her family are shunned by their community. She loses her job and her family is almost evicted. The film offers an equally jarring portrayal of Demetrius’ ostracism from his friends and family. He is told that he has “disgraced his race,” loses most of the clients from his carpet cleaning business, his loan, and his membership at the Chamber of Commerce, being deemed, “not exactly appropriate.” His interaction with his white loan officer and the Chamber of Commerce official allude to how white supremacy divides Black and South Asian Americans.
Though Mississippi Masala was released in theaters three decades ago, I am struck by how little has changed. Though interracial relationships have become more common, the stigma associated with Black and brown love remains. The ugliness of this brand of racism is difficult to define, but Demetrius encapsulates it well in a conversation with Mina’s father: “I know you and your folks can come here from God knows where and can be as black as the ace of spades, but as soon as you come here, you start acting white and treating us like your doormats. I know that you and your daughter ain’t but a few shades from [my own skin color]. That I know.”
Becoming an ally of the Black community must involve reexamining personal biases and embracing Black and brown intimacy and love. This reckoning begins in our homes and communities, but calling out racist comments and microaggressions is the bare minimum. True solidarity will mean confronting parents, family, and friends with their prejudices and the systemic inequality that Black Americans face regularly, from which South Asians often benefit. Moreover, the South Asian community must question what “values” make them hostile to inter-racial relationships, specifically to Black and brown love. The selective allyship of “United we stand, divided we fall,” is no longer enough.
This article was brought to you by the Blog Team at Project Stree. Project Stree is a non-profit dedicated to empowering young women and girls in India and providing them with sustainable period products. To learn more about Project Stree, visit our website, here.