Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Mississippi Masala

In her essay Binita Mehta argues that Mississippi Masala challenges the black/white binary paradigm of race in America and, in her view, the film “urges that connections be made between different non-white minorities.” For me, this quote underscores a central dilemma faced by the film’s characters and by all who wish to expose racial categories such as whiteness as culturally constructed. When identities are either defined “against” whiteness (e.g., “non-white” or “people of color”) or in alignment with it (e.g., the Indian characters who perceive lighter skin tones as more desirable) this re-inscribes race/skin color as a meaningful category and reasserts whiteness as normative. That’s the insidiousness of the racial hierarchy. It assert itself into attempts to resist it and it overwrites other types of commonalities, such as class, political interests, economic interests, etc., as being less significant when it is these shared experiences and concerns that could align people from different groups in truly resistant ways.

The dilemma for many of the film's characters is how to define themselves in societies where race-based power structures exist. Like the characters in Better Luck Tomorrow, Mina and Demetrious struggle to find a sense of self that is not based on the expectations that others have of them--expactations based on their gender, race, culture, etc. The movie illustrates how in Uganda and the US, the Indians occupy a shifting middle zone between “white” and “black.” Jay defined himself as Ugandan, a category he imagined as nonracial, yet he enjoyed the privileges that a European colonial infrastructure based on race bestowed.

Where Mehta sees the film as a hopeful representation of alliances that can be forged between marginalized groups, I felt that the “love will conquer all” ending, while heartwarming, hardly has the political edge that Mehta wants it to possess. How, for example, does she imagine that the main characters’ lives will have changed as a result of their awakenings?

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