Monday, July 9, 2018
July 9, 2018: Representing Race: Jungle Fever and Mississippi Masala
[On July 11th, 1960 Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird was first published. One of the most taught books in American classrooms, Mockingbird offers (among other things) a flawed but vital representation of race in American society and history. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of such complex racial representations, leading up to a weekend post on mystery fiction and race!]
On two swelting interracial romances that work particularly well in combination.
I don’t have hard proof for this, but I believe that when we Americans think and talk about interracial relationships, we do so first and foremost, and perhaps much of the time solely, through the lens of black and white. As is often the case, my starting point for this idea is my own perspective, my own engagement with such simplifying national narratives—despite my past interracial marriage to someone whose identity falls outside of that binary, I believe that I do tend to link the topic explicitly and consistently to issues of black and white (as illustrated by an earlier post on cultural representations of controversial issues, where I mentioned Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and All in the Family/The Jeffersons in relation to interracial relationships). And moving beyond my own individual perspective, I would cite two quick (and very distinct) examples of this trend at work more broadly: the Supreme Court case that overturned all remaining state laws outlawing interracial marriage, Loving v. Virginia (1967), was responding not only to a marriage between a white man and a black woman but also to a statute that framed the issue in terms of those two races, and thus the Court’s decision likewise focused (not entirely, but at times) on how such laws treated “the white and Negro participants in an interracial marriage”; and one of the best scholarly works on images of this topic in our literary history, Werner Sollors’ Neither Black Nor White Yet Both: Thematic Explorations of Interracial Literature (1997), likewise focuses (as its title indicates) on those two racial identities and communities.
The respective prominence of two films released within a year of one another, Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever (1991) and Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala (1992), provides another illustration of this trend, as well as an opportunity to move beyond any one understanding of interracial marriage and toward a more meaningful analysis of the issue in American culture and identity more broadly. Both films were successful at the (domestic) box office, especially in relationship to their respective budgets and releases: Lee’s film grossed $32.5 million, on a budget of roughly $14 million and a wide release; Nair’s grossed $7.3 million, on a budget of under $1 million and a pretty limited release. Both similarly received prestigious recognition from film festivals and awards ceremonies dedicated to supporting independent films: Nair’s triumphed at the Venice Film Festival and won an Independent Spirit Award (among others); Lee’s won at Cannes and a New York Film Critics Circle Award (ditto). Yet it seems clear to me that Lee’s film has lasted in our public consciousness in a way that Nair’s has not. While there are any number of plausible factors for that difference, many of which have little to do with race—Lee was only two years removed from Do the Right Thing (1989), the film that had put him on the map in a major way, while Nair had directed only one other, relatively unknown feature film, Salaam Bombay! (1988); Lee’s film featured a star-making, award-winning turn from Samuel L. Jackson as a mercurial crack addict (although Nair’s film did star Denzel Washington in an award-winning role, just two years after winning an Oscar for Glory, so this factor doesn’t quite hold up)—I think it’s fair to say that Lee’s portrayal of a romance between an African-American architect and an Italian-American secretary tapped into our dominant narratives about interracial relationships much more fully than Nair’s depiction of a Ugandan-Indian-American motel employee falling for an African-American carpet cleaner.
One could get plenty of mileage trying to figure out which factors have most contributed to the two films’ respective legacies (or, quite possibly, discovering that I’m wrong about those legacies), but again and as usual my ideal would be a different and I believe more broadly productive emphasis: what we can gain by watching both films, not only individually but also as a pair of contemporaneous cultural representations of interracial relationships in the closing decade of the 20th century. And I think that both are particularly interesting, and particularly if complicatedly interconnected, in their depictions of the protagonists’ families and social networks. I don’t mean just how those families and networks respond to the interracial relationships themselves—certainly the near-universal judgments and critiques from all three (or four, if New York African American is considered distinct from Mississippi African American) cultural communities are telling, but I think the films are at least as interesting in how they construct the complex worlds of their respective settings and the familial and social networks within them. That means in each case both a kind of immigrant community (very literally and recently for the Ugandan Indian family in Mississippi; more as a vibrant and ongoing heritage for the Italian Americans in Jungle) and a homegrown African American one, but also includes other social and cultural factors—such as drug culture or the rise of an African American urban middle class in Jungle and the dictatorship and impact of Idi Amin or African American life in the post-Civil Rights South in Mississippi—that add significant layers and complications to any black and white vision of these different communities.
Next representation tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other representations of race you’d highlight?