Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Mississippi Masala

"Mississippi Masala" (Mira Nair, 1991)

There is so much that I liked about Mississsippi Masala that is seems churlish to be critical. It is the story of a family of Ugandan Asians expelled from their homeland by Idi Amin who fetch up in Greenwood Mississippi, living on the charity of relatives. Most of the movie takes place in 1990 and revolves around the Romeo and Juliet tale of Meena and Dimitri, a black carpet cleaner who first meet when she rear-ends his truck. Nair also shows us the circumstances of the family's expulsion from Uganda in order to introduce us to Okelo, the childhood friend of Meena's father, Jay. He is the person who persuades Jay that he must leave his homeland because 'Africa is for Africans now, Black Africans'. Yet, he is the one who rescues Jay from prison by bribing the police chief. This friendship is important because it reveals the tension that drives the movie, between what people feel about each other and what they feel about race and how these can conflict within the same person. The strength of this movie is that Nair manages to let all sides tell their own story and she refuses to be partial. We end up being as sympathetic to the Asian-Americans as to the African-Americans, to the immigrants as to the natives. The only group that comes out wholesale as less than sympathetic are the few White characters who appear. There are plenty of scenes that are well-observed such as when Meena first meets Dimitri's family at a backyard barbecue when she is interrogated by his family who are fascinated by her - the irony is that as they try to understand where she is from and what category she fits into, it is finally clear that she is the only one at the party who is truly African.

What doesn't work so well for me was first of all the episodic nature of the movie. Nair is concerned to give us a full context for the experiences of this Ugandan Asian family and so we have the sub-plot of her father's struggle to be compensated for all that he has left behind in Africa. It is rather heavy-handed as is some of the direction. There are times in the movie when the acting seems forced and awkward and you wish for a lighter hand on the tiller. However, it is a movie that is more than the sum of its parts.

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