Movie Review: A Consideration of DRIVING MISS DAISY’s Racial Politics
To this day, Driving Miss Daisy remains one of the most controversial films ever made about race in America, though not for the reasons that most people associate with a word like “controversial.” For a film steeped in the Civil Rights era – it takes place in Atlanta from 1948 to 1973 – Driving Miss Daisy plays as surprisingly sedate. Cozy, even. At the end of the day, this is a gentle dramedy about a well-to-do Jewish woman (Jessica Tandy, who won the Best Actress Oscar for her work here) and her African-American chauffeur (then-Academy Award-nominee Morgan Freeman) who slowly realize that they are soul mates. One is black and one is white, but their racial differences ultimately prove less important than their differences in personality, and how those personality quirks endear the two to one another over a twenty-five-year span of time.
And that low-key ease pisses off a lot of people. I suspect that had the movie arrived in the late 1970s or early 1980s and not made the impact that it did (in addition to Tandy’s Oscar, it won three others, including Best Picture), its cultural impact would have been minor but positive. However, Driving Miss Daisy arrived a year after Alan Parker’s violent mystery Mississippi Burning and only six months after Spike Lee’s incendiary Do the Right Thing. These two films came off like a shotgun blast, presenting race relations both past (Mississippi Burning) and present (Do the Right Thing) in a harsh, ambiguous light. Mississippi Burning displays an American South so torn by racially motivated violence that the FBI intervenes to staunch the bleeding; Do the Right Thing throws post-racial multiculturalism into stark relief with its Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood seething with social unrest.
Driving Miss Daisy, on the other hand, plays a bit like The Odd Couple for the AARP crowd. There are definitely some explicit indicators of racial unease – in one scene, Tandy’s Miss Daisy spurns Freeman’s Hoke Colburn by not inviting him to accompany her to a dinner with Martin Luther King Jr., and in another, a pair of cracker highway patrolmen let fly some unpleasant racial invective at both Miss Daisy and Hoke – but by and large, the picture doesn’t try to make its audience swallow as unpleasant a pill as Parker and Lee’s respective films offer.
Here’s the thing: at the time, Driving Miss Daisy definitely scored the biggest critical and commercial plaudits, but its cultural cachet immediately began to plummet. It’s one of those strange Hollywood conceits – in that town, the hand that feeds you also bites, and you can never predict when or how – but its success didn’t drown out the voices crying for a more progressive and angry take on race (hell, we’re twenty-four years done the line, and Spike Lee is still complaining about the film).
And to some extent, maybe those voices are right. Maybe Driving Miss Daisy should have tried harder to keep pace with the time’s other likeminded features. We remember Do the Right Thing inspiring genuine civic action across the country, but what do we remember about Driving Miss Daisy? Freeman and Tandy, both of whom were good but had been – and in Freeman’s case, would be – better elsewhere? Hans Zimmer’s syrupy synthesizer score? Dan Aykroyd, who scored a Best Supporting Actor nomination off his character’s squishy demeanor?
More incisive screen studies of race have blunted Driving Miss Daisy’s impact; I can’t help but find it a little ironic that this new Blu-ray edition hits the market just two weeks after Quentin Tarantino’s thematically and corporeally explosive “Southern” Django Unchained arrived in theaters. No matter how much money or mass appeal Driving Miss Daisy finds, it always has to stack up against a more two-fisted racial varietal.
That fact used to bother me more. For a long time, I genuinely wanted to separate Driving Miss Daisy from its peers, to appreciate the good within it on its own merits, but ultimately, I realized I couldn’t. The lead performances and Bruce Beresford’s sensitive direction aside, this movie just doesn’t grab me like Mississippi Burning or Do the Right Thing or Django Unchained do. When compared to other Hollywood pictures, its restraint is admirable. But when one holds Driving Miss Daisy up as an exemplar of this country’s divisive attitudes towards race, that same restraint seems like a liability. Race relations are not gentle or kind or precious – they’re messy and confusing and uncomfortable, and there isn’t a messy or confusing or uncomfortable bone in Driving Miss Daisy’s warm-blanket body. Even last year’s comedy-drama The Help had more incisive things to say about the African-American experience in America, and that’s a movie that plays racial injustice across the face of its pretty white lead (Emma Stone) and makes time for a Mel Brooks-esque interlude where Octavia Spencer’s saucy servant feeds Bryce Dallas Howard’s white devil a plate of human s**t.
Driving Miss Daisy, however? Wouldn’t dare stoop to that level, and maybe that’s the problem.
That said, I can find no fault with Warner’s Blu-ray edition. The Digibook package presents the film in a handsome HD transfer with a solid 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track – Driving Miss Daisy has never been anyone’s idea of home-theater-reference-quality material (it’s based on an equally sedate stage play), but this Blu-ray looks and sounds about as good as possible.
The supplementary package is pleasantly meaty. We get a commentary with Beresford, author Alfred Uhry, and producer Lili Finn Zanuck; three vintage behind-the-scenes featurettes (a production featurette, “Jessica Tandy: Theater Legend to Screen Star,” and “Miss Daisy’s Journey: From Stage to Screen”); and a newly produced documentary – “Things Are Changing: The Worlds of Hoke and Miss Daisy” – that does a good job of outlining the unrest lurking at Driving Miss Daisy’s perimeters. The disc also has the original trailer.
I don’t begrudge you if you enjoy Driving Miss Daisy; it’s a handsome, effortlessly satisfying dramedy. It also suffers when compared to similarly themed features – once you’ve seen the likes of Mississippi Burning or Do the Right Thing or Django Unchained, it’s hard to go back to this one.
Driving Miss Daisy is now available on Blu-ray. Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.
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