I like to think of Mississippi Masala as a film from another time—not just from another decade or another era in film history, but from an alternate dimension. A dimension where Denzel Washington isn’t just a Great Black Movie Star, constantly pulling off Oscar-caliber performances when he also isn’t whooping asses in studio actioners. He’s also a charming romantic lead.
Released 30 years ago, the second fiction film from Indian-American filmmaker Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay!) is a little-seen romantic dramedy that, even though Janus Films digitally restored it not too long ago—presumably leading the way for an upcoming Criterion Collection release—currently can’t be found on any streaming or video-or-demand service. (Thank God it’s still on YouTube for free.) Washington stars as Demetrius, a Mississippi carpet cleaner who falls for young beauty Mina (Sarita Choudhury, in her film debut). Along with working at a motel owned and operated by other Indians, she also lives there with her parents (Roshan Seth, Sharmila Tagore). They’ve made the Magnolia State their home after getting kicked out of their native Uganda—generations of Indians were born there after they were recruited to work on the Uganda Railway in 1895—ever since Idi Amin forced Asians out of the country in 1972. Her mother works at a liquor store, regularly serenaded by a beer-swilling, harmonica-playing bluesman, while her still-homesick father continually writes to the courts in Kampala, demanding a trial to get his confiscated property back.
Their courtship is a cute one. It begins when Mina accidentally hits the back of Demetrius’s truck after grocery shopping. Then, it leads to late-night phone calls, walks along the bayou and even a barbecue with Demetrius’ family. But once Demetrius whisks Mina away on an overnight getaway to Biloxi (aka the Playground of the South!) and word gets out, their interracial romance immediately becomes the talk of the town. This doesn’t sit well with Mina’s pop, who’s still kinda sore about getting kicked out of his homeland by dark-skinned people he once considered his brothers and sisters.
Nair and writer/longtime collaborator Sooni Taraporevala create a more playful, less intense Jungle Fever with Masala. (The movie actually has more in common with Wan Pipel, a 1976 Surinamese-Dutch film about the romance between an Afro-Surinamese man and an Indo-Surinamese Hindu nurse.) And much like how Fever spotlighted star Wesley Snipes’ sexual magnetism (as one Def Comedy Jam comic put it, love scenes featuring the man looked too real), Washington’s cool, studly suaveness is on full display in Masala. I’ve seen this movie a few times and it’s still kinda jarring seeing Washington, who has spent most of his career playing characters who are usually too concerned with making a change or a difference or whatever to engage in sexual contact with anyone, actually get busy with someone on camera. Considering how sex scenes are practically verboten in movies these days, I gotta say it’s downright liberating (and sensual as hell) watching Washington and Choudhury wrap their brown limbs around each other in a delicious bedroom sequence.
Looking back on Washington’s career, Masala seems like a brief dip he took with lighthearted material before getting back to making Important Movies. (Don’t forget Masala came out the same year as Malcolm X.) It is unfortunate that Washington still hasn’t taken time off from playing badasses, either real or fake, to once again play guys who aren’t afraid to sweep women off their feet. A lot of people were expecting Washington and Julia Roberts to get it on in the adaptation of John Grisham’s The Pelican Brief, since their characters have a romance in the book. Sadly, that never transpired on the big screen. (Washington reportedly excised the proposed love scenes, saying he didn’t want to offend his Black, female audience.)
Then again, leading men of color like Washington rarely get the chance to be on-screen sexual beings. In a 2005 GQ piece on race and sex in the movies, Tom Carson put it best when he wrote, “Whatever else African-American actors bring to the party, Hollywood usually asks them to leave their sexual magnetism at home.” Carson also cited Washington as “the most depressing example of what being deprived of can do to a Black actor:”
It’s not just that Washington’s so talented; more to the point, I’ve never known a female movie fan—Black, white, young, or old—who wouldn’t bail on her own wedding anniversary to chase his car. With his gift for wry insinuation and easy rapport with his co-stars, he would’ve been a natural for romantic comedy.
After Malcolm, it seemed Washington became hellbent on following in the footsteps of the recently dearly departed trailblazer Sidney Poitier, who regularly downplayed his sex appeal even when the movie he was in preferred he didn’t. I watched To Sir, with Love for the first time the other day and was amused by how Poitier’s dapper, dignified schoolteacher is practically lusted after by most of the female characters. The coquettish looks Lulu and Judy Geeson’s lovestruck students give him often border on ravenous, while teachers played by Suzy Kendall and Patricia Routledge give off a coyly flirtatious vibe whenever they’re in his presence. But Poitier always played it chaste, preemptively keeping bitter moviegoers—either white or Black—from getting mad and retaliating.
While Washington never continued his journey to become the Black Robert Redford (basically, a movie star who can pick up Oscars, knock dudes out and steal your girl), it is fun watching Mississippi Masala and witnessing what could’ve been.
Craig D. Lindsey is a Houston-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @unclecrizzle.