*Spoilers ahead…but you have had 35 years to watch this movie, so...
My Beautiful Laundrette is set in 1985 London under the rule of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. It was a time of high unemployment, privatization, greed and civil unrest. Our two main characters, Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Omar (Gordon Warnecke) are products of the state of their country, and trying to live their best lives in spite of it all.
My Beautiful Laundrette, directed by Stephen Freers, is often referenced as a positive LGBTQIA+ film because our two main characters are in a homosexual relationship. While no dialogue involves the outright admitting of the relationship or any “coming out” scenes, their relationship is DEFINITELY not a secret. There is no shame, fear of violence or criticism about their homosexual partnership. The struggle in My Beautiful Laundrette is not their sexuality, it is the treatment of the Pakistani citizens in England. None of the characters seem to care that two men are in a relationship, but many are quite upset about an interracial relationship.
Omar is almost mute for the first third of the film. He is not an idiot, but hopeful and excited like a child about opportunities coming his way. When he gets out of a car as it’s being attacked by White fascists, he seems naively unaware of the potential threat. He is confident because he sees Johnny, his old friend from school. This appears like an unsafe reaction in the scene, building upon Omar’s seemingly blind ignorance to reality.
Omar’s father was a reporter in Bombay. When the family moved to England, however, he fell into alcoholism after failing to make an impact with journalism on this new country. Nassar describes, “What chance would an Englishman give a leftist, communist Pakistani?” In one of the few words Omar speaks in the beginning, he corrects Nassar that Hussein is a socialist, not communist. Omar clearly respects his father and his father’s politics. Hussein has been trying to fight the good fight, but is so beaten down that he is drunk and practically bedridden.
Hussein just wants Omar to go to school, not run businesses with his uncle. Don’t play into the system — change the system. Hussein even tries to convince Johnny to attend college with Omar. Hussein tells Johnny that the younger generation needs the education “…if we are to see what is being done to whom in this country.” Sounds like a conversation for the All Lives Matter folks as well.
Johnny has been in a gang of White fascists for some time, despite having a loving relationship with Omar and his father. Johnny’s group of “friends” tries to convince him to return to the fascist lifestyle as he becomes closer to Omar and less…racist? One says, “Look, they came over here to work for us. That’s why we brought ’em over. Don’t cut yourself off from your own people. There’s no one else who really wants ya.” This scene felt so relevant today, considering the current state of the American systems. It was a peek into the twisted mindset of racists: they really believe that any people who are “others” are the enemy. Only Hussein seems to understand that the system needs to change or everyone will suffer. The “other” that everyone should be vilifying is the powers-that-be, not the citizens.
During an eviction, when Omar’s very rich uncle, Nassar, is called a “thieving Uncle Tom parasite” by an evictee, Nassar explains the entire problem with their capitalist society: “I’m a professional businessman, not a professional Pakistani. And there is no question of race in the new enterprise culture.” Money over everything. He will be accepted into English society as long as he has money, at any cost. Family friend, Salim, backs up this point in another scene, stating, “We’re nothing in England without money.”
I have neglected to cover the actual laundrette referenced in the title of this film. It is inconsequential. The laundry business is a symbol for Omar of success; and in its renovation, a symbol of the love between Johnny and Omar. They turned a useless store front into a beautiful, thriving business. They are the laundrette. Despite their circumstances, they manage to make something beautiful together.
Once the laundromat is fully functioning, Johnny is briefly heartbroken and disappointed by Omar, and immediately falls back into his old gang. Omar defends himself with, “I’m not going to be beaten down by this country.” Omar goes on to tell Johnny that he has not forgotten how Johnny and his White friends used to violently bully Omar in school. Now, Omar has the power because he has the money. Here is the turning point for the audience’s understanding of Omar. He is not naive or gullible, he has been traumatized by racism, and is trying to gain power in the only way he can. We understand Omar’s choices and don’t judge him for those. He saw his father try to have a voice through political journalism, and that failed. He saw his uncle gain power by playing the system within the system. There is a past that cannot be forgotten, and Omar has the right to be angry and upset with Johnny. He doesn’t apologize for the minor inconsideration in the moment, he explains where his own anger comes from. And Johnny listens, and is visibly ashamed of his actions. Has he grown from this realization?
The end is very important, but difficult to watch. After building tension of the possibility of violence from the White fascists, it all happens. But this is pivotal for the character development of Omar and Johnny. The White boys are beating up Salim (who is a villain, but also Pakistani). Johnny crosses the ethnic party lines and saves Salim from near death by turning on his White comrades and taking the beating himself. Omar then crosses the ethnic party lines in return to save Johnny from being equally brutalized by the White gang for defending Salim. Omar and Johnny’s mutual admiration and devotion to one another is what wins the day, despite the constant reminders to stay with “their own people”.
My favorite aspect of this story is that neither gay character has to be killed for the audience to feel empathy. We still want these men together and happy. All of the characters, Pakistani and White, are beaten down by the system. The immigrant experience, according to the wealthy Pakistani characters, is to assimilate into British culture. And British culture is capitalism, with or without ethnic traditions. We heard both Nassar and Salim tell Omar this sentiment (as quoted previously). The violence in the film is fueled by racism, not homophobia, which is RARE in film. I am not happy there is racially charged violence in the film, but it is refreshing to see that Omar and Johnny’s sexuality is not cause for violence and fear. The real demon is racism and greed. Sounds familiar to me — not much has changed in 35 years.Written by Sarah Erskine