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Streaming: Denzel at his best in ‘Mississippi Masala’

Now showing

“Mississippi Masala” is streaming on the Criterion Channel. Rated R. Running time 1:58. Visit criterionchannel.com.

Denzel Washington is one of the most beautiful beings to ever walk the Earth and, when you factor in his commanding coolness, it’s vanishingly rare to see him meet his match onscreen. Even in great early roles, like Easy Rawlins in “Devil in a Blue Dress” and Xavier Quinn in “The Mighty Quinn,” he had romantic interests but he was never cowed. He recently had to do “The Tragedy of Macbeth” just to see what it would be like for a lady to overwhelm him. But, in the 1991 treasure “Mississippi Masala,” Sarita Choudhury’s character Mina gives Denzel a run for his money.

Before they can meet, Mina’s dad Jay (Roshan Seth) and mom Kinnu (Sharmila Tagore) must flee Uganda, where they have lived their whole lives, when Idi Amin’s government banished Asians from the country circa 1972. Their flight is depicted in a very well seen series of shots—it helps that director Mira Nair filmed in Kampala, a place she knew well.

We jump to 1990 in Greenwood, Mississippi where Jay and Kinnu run the Likker Legger liquor store in a Black neighborhood and live among a group of Indian expats in a well-kept but rather seedy motel. In this way, the film’s a little like “Schitt’s Creek,” except local good old boys say stuff like, “Send them back to the reservation,” confusing which kind of Indians they mean to be racist about.

Mina works at the front desk and cleans rooms and Washington’s Demetrius comes in periodically to do the carpets. (The fun slogan of his business is: “Your dirt is our bread and butter.”) At first it seems Demetrius just wants to dance with Mina to make his ex jealous, but she snuggles up anyway…who can really resist? Soon he tempts her to a family barbeque where we’re treated to Denzel wearing a “Dressed to Grill” apron, as his grandfather hollers about his food not being ready. Demetrius’s older brother Tyrone (Charles S. Dutton) greets Mina with the question, “You Mexican?” while younger brother Dexter (Tico Wells) dresses like Flavor Flav and seems highly influenced by Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.”

From the style of the opening credits style to the pointed screenplay, “Mississippi Masala” demonstrates Lee’s heavy influence on the early ‘90s American cinema, but screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala includes her own uniquely political dialogue. Regarding the Indian community in town, Demetrius’s dad deadpans: “You fall in bed with one of their daughters, you gonna swing.” For their part, Mina’s parents have a conversation about whether their daughter is too dark-skinned to be marriageable in their community. Even the smooth Demetrius has profound lines like, “Racism, or as they say nowadays, tradition, gets passed down like recipes. Now, the trick is, you gotta know what to eat and what to leave on your plate.”

Mina and Demetrius retreat for a steamy lover’s weekend in Biloxi—her marigold-colored beach outfit is something to behold. Regrettably the power couple are spied on by Anil (Ranjit Chowdhry), Pontiac (Mohan Gokhale) and Kanti Napkin (Mohan Agashe), a clown chorus of inglorious Indian bros with nothing to do but snoop around in their retina-stretching attire. Their reporting back home to Greenwood throws Demetrius and Mina’s whole romance into doubt.

All the way through, “Mississippi Masala” offers more real-world edge than 99% of romantic comedies. The overwhelming misogyny and racism, the defiantly working-class pride, the uproarious family quarrels, combine to make this film more than classic star-crossed love story. Such a heady mélange has too rarely been accomplished in the 30 years since its release.

Now showing

“Mississippi Masala” is streaming on the Criterion Channel. Rated R. Running time 1:58. Visit criterionchannel.com.

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