In Mississippi Marsala (1991) director Mira Nair examines racism, both in the American South and elsewhere, through a different lens. The South in this film provides a landscape known for a history of difficult racial relations. We see elements of this racism in the film, mere hints, really. The primary focus is on relations between African Americans and South Asian Indians. By focusing on these groups, Nair views race in a new and unfamiliar context that sheds light on more familiar discussions of the subject.
Nair parallels the experiences of an Indian family in Uganda and in Mississippi. The family regarded Uganda as its home. Meena, the daughter, has never even visited India. She knows no other country but Uganda. When Idi Amin foments racial discord in Uganda, and when Meena's father Roshan Seth makes comments critical of Amin in a BBC interview, the family is forced to leave, along with all other non-Africans. As Roshan Seth's African friend explains to him, "Africa is only for Africans now, black Africans." As a result the family moves to Greenwood, Mississippi, to run a hotel while Roshan Seth pursues law suits against the Ugandan government, seeking the return of confiscated property. Part of the reason why Roshan Seth and others like him were expelled is that they had become wealthy and had been accused of a certain clannishness—Indian families did not, for example, allow their children to marry Africans.
In Greenwood, Meena grows up. At the time of the story, she is 24. Her parents expect her to marry an Indian. In a minor car accident, Meena runs into the van of a carpet cleaner named Demetrius Williams, played by Denzel Washington. Demetrius, with the assistance of some white citizens in the town, has secured a bank loan to start a carpet cleaning company. He has been successful with the company and always pays his bank notes on time. After the accident, he and Meena begin to see each other and fall in love. When their relationship is discovered (they are found sleeping together in a hotel room by one of Meena's relatives), there are extreme reactions in the community from both sides of the racial fence. Meena's father forbids the relationship, though he rationalizes his opposition by saying that he does not want his daughter to suffer racism in the same way he did.
In a scene shortly after the car accident, one of Meena's relatives, a successful businessman in Greenwood, urges Demetrius not to file suit against his family because of the collision. He tells Demetrius that all non-white people are "colored" people, the point being that they all suffer racism and therefore share a common bond. On the basis of this common plight, he appeals to Demetrius, who assures him he has no plans to sue.
After Demetrius' relationship with Meena is discovered, however, the common bond disappears. The Indians unanimously oppose her relationship with a black man. The same relative who appealed to Demetrius not to sue in turn goes to white business owners in town and asks them not to do business with Demetrius' carpet cleaning company. He quickly loses all his clients and the bank threatens to repossess his van. White citizens of the town complain and joke about Demetrius' relationship with Meena. Meena's father decides to move back to Africa to prevent his daughter from involvement with Demetrius.
Demetrius receives criticism from family and friends, from the African American community in general, for his relationship with Meena. His sister accuses him of rejecting black women. His father accuses him of causing trouble. His father, whom Demetrius loves, has spent his life working in subservient roles. He appears to believe in the necessity of playing it safe, of not antagonizing the white power structure by any action or word that would seem to offend prevailing racial codes. In a sense, Demetrius by developing his carpet cleaning business has done the same—it is a service-oriented business, one involving manual labor, not one that threatens to upset the racial order in Greenwood.
Both sides—the Indians and the African Americans—reveal their racial clannishness and their own racist attitudes in reacting to Meena and Demetrius' relationship. Several short scenes show white citizens in Greenwood reacting to the fracas. One old man gleefully remarks on the problems that the Indian family is experiencing with the African American Demetrius.
The parallels that Nair has set up in the film—between Uganda and Greenwood, Mississippi, and between the Indians who have never been to India and the African Americans who have never been to Africa—work well. Both groups feel that where they are—Greenwood—is their home. Yet both groups experience conflict with other groups who see a specific racial identity associated with their citizenship in Uganda or in Greenwood--Uganda is for black Africans; Greenwood is for African-Americans, or for whites, but not for Indians.
Meena and Demetrius ultimately resolve their problems by breaking with their families and with Greenwood. They decide to move away and to work the carpet cleaning business together. The suggestion is that, given the racism both of Greenwood and of their families, this is the only way they can find satisfaction and happiness. This film therefore seems to argue that the solution to racial conflict does not lie in adherence to past traditions and beliefs but rather in living in the present, in accommodating oneself to present-day circumstances and situations.
In a sense this film is not so much about the South as it is about two groups of people who live in the South—Indians and African Americans—and specifically about Mira and Demetrius' families.
Mira Nair has an incisive sense of comedy and satire that comes through especially in her portrayal of various Indian characters in the film, especially one character in particular who covets his car and dresses and acts like a 1950s style Memphis hipster, with greased back hair, in the Elvis style. She's more careful not to satirize African American characters—perhaps she feels her identity as an Indian woman allows her a certain license in satirizing Indians, but not in satirizing other races. Yet she also has a genuine fondness for the humanity of all her characters —African, African American, Indian, or white. She recognizes the comic as well as tragic consequences that can arise from human conflict rooted in racial divisions.