Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Sh!#ting on the Classics: Driving Miss Daisy

The Oscar race that concluded last week only proves that our entertainment community still has a problem with… race.

At my advanced age I should know better, but I still found it amusing that Academy members and a large segment of the American public fell all over themselves praising The Help, a simple-minded film that advances the bilious tropes that a) Americans love when black people are portrayed as servants, and b) that Americans really love when white people are shown as saviors. Clearly, the domestic servants of the South would have lost their struggle for fair treatment and equality if it had not been for that FICTIONAL LITTLE WHITE GIRL who helped them so much.

At least the producers of The Help can be “applauded” for responding to the shit storm of criticism the film received by turning it to their advantage – they actually incorporated it into a new marketing plan. “Join the conversation,” said the film’s second wave of advertising, as if “This film is racist!” is a clever conversation starter.

I sincerely think it is a sign that we are advancing as a species that The Help is, to the best of my knowledge, the first Oscar nominee for Best Picture to feature coprophagia.

Now, speaking of coprophagia, how about the steaming pile of shit that is Driving Miss Daisy? That movie was made 23 fucking years ago, actually won Best Picture, and shows how backward Hollywood was and continues to be when it comes to race.

I am beginning to think that the only way we will ever see a serious Medgar Evers biopic in this country is if Tyler Perry writes and directs, and it stars Medea as the title character.

Yes, we have Ghosts of Mississippi, but that’s the story of a white lawyer bringing Evers’ murderer to justice. And we have Mississippi Burning, but that’s the story of two heroic white FBI agents and their important role in the civil rights struggle. And we have Cry Freedom, the ostensible biopic of South African rebel Stephen Biko that is actually the story of white journalist Donald Woods. Notice that there is always a strategically placed white character with whom the intended white audience can identify and empathize.

Driving Miss Daisy tells the story of elderly Daisy Werthan, who, after a car accident, is forced to accept the services of a chauffeur hired by her son. The relationship between Hoke, the black chauffeur, and Daisy starts out prickly but eventually grows into a real friendship—much like the friendship that eventually grew between black civil rights protesters and Southern fire hoses in the mid Sixties.

Driving Miss Daisy, however well intentioned or well acted, offers this astounding moral: it takes 41 fucking years for a rich white woman to learn to respect her chauffeur as a fellow human being. Glad you lived long enough to reach enlightenment, LADY!

Yes, Miss Daisy is 113 years old at the end of the film when she confides to Hoke, “You’re my best friend.” Or could this just be the dementia talking?

FULL DISCLOSURE: I kind of like the part where Miss Daisy finds out that Hoke is illiterate and, having taught for thirty years, teaches him to read. I think this pulls at my heartstrings because as some of my readers know, I am … illiterate.

Morgan Freeman’s performance is an interesting mix of two repulsive stereotypes: the shuffling black servant and another character Spike Lee has dubbed “the Magical Negro,” the black man who does not really seem to be from Earth and who exists only to solve the white man’s problems or extol his saintly virtues. Movies love the Magical Negro: Uncle Remus in Song of the South, Bagger Vance, , inmate John Coffey in The Green Mile, Chubbs Peterson in Happy Gilmore, the list goes on and on. Is this character Hollywood’s twisted apology for thirty years of black street toughs and junkies? Or is it merely a new, more socially acceptable form of shucking and jiving?

My son recently informed me that Spike Lee makes a habit of adding the hashtag “#lawdy” to retweets on the Twitter of things that seem to him hopelessly retrograde or racist.

One of my main complaints about Driving Miss Daisy is that it is so undemanding and self-congratulatory. There is nothing here that points to the real issues of the civil rights struggle; it’s mostly about how damn important it is for an old, rich, white woman to get to the store. And it’s not as if the film wants to be a simple “Southern memory piece;” it begs us to take it seriously by explicitly bringing Martin Luther King and racist Southern cops into the film. In the final analysis it is as comfortable about racism as it is with its gorgeous Southern scenery, its syrupy and saccharine score, and the change of seasons it clumsily tries to use as a metaphor.

Need more evidence that Driving Miss Daisy must be awful? Everyone over at the IMDB loves the shit out of it. They say “a gem,” “a masterpiece,” “a treasure,” and “How many films get made showing an old Jewish woman complaining that a poor black man stole a 33 cent can of salmon from her pantry?”

I have been informed that there is a pornographic version of this film, titled Driving Miss Daisy Crazy, in which the Hoke character gives the Daisy character a very different kind of ride. #Lawdy!

AN ANNOYING AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL PAUSE: A reader at this point might wonder, “Why is JB getting all in a lather -- nay, why is JB getting all up in Driving Miss Daisy’s grille?” What is my claim to moral superiority?

Once I was alone on the elevator when three black men entered. I was oblivious to their presence, because I was thinking about food. I like food. Food tastes good.

When I emerged from my self-imposed cocoon of obliviousness a few floors later, I was vaguely aware that they were talking about me. More to the point, they were mocking me, calling me a “Big, Fat, Tony-Soprano-Looking Motherfucker.”

Thinking that I was annoyed (I tend to look annoyed even when I am blissfully happy. I am also, in truth, a Big, Fat, Tony Soprano-Looking Motherfucker) one of the black youths began to apologize, explaining, “We were just funnin’ you, man. We were just joking around, man. You’re okay, man. You’re okay. Because you… is my niggah.”

FINALLY, I thought. It is official. I am a niggah.

I am his niggah. He said it, not me. I am a niggah… and I am his! If you have a problem with this, then talk to him.

(Notice that I am using the vernacular idiom because in truth I am a bleeding heart liberal and cannot bring myself to type the real n-word. I hear stupid white students emulate rappers by using the word “niggah”; they must think it is okay because they have changed a couple of letters. I suggest to them that they should go all the way with this dubious scheme and just use the word “snickers.” Everybody loves Snickers.)

Driving Miss Daisy bothers me as a critic, but it also bothers me as a Snickers. It pains me to see movie roles go to black actors only if they are willing to be slow-witted servants or scarifying street toughs. Robert Townsend talked about this phenomenon 25 fucking years ago in his film Hollywood Shuffle, a full two years before Daisy’s release.

The final irony: Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, a film that speaks unambiguously and uncomfortably about racism, was made the same year as Driving Miss Daisy. It was not even nominated.

Watching this year’s Oscars, I wondered on the Twitter why the talented Octavia Spencer did not just reuse Hattie McDaniel’s Gone With The Wind acceptance speech from 1939. I do not see that things have changed much. Perhaps this just paints me as an angry, outspoken black man.



  1. At least the movie inspired one of "In Living Color's" most memorable early skits: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n2SWw1Zso5Y :-)

    I agree with everything you say JB (and kudos to, of all people, Kim Bassinger for standing up to the Academy in 1990 by praising "Do The Right Thing" during "Driving Miss Daisy's" Oscar coronation). In defense of the movie's actors though, they were hired to play fictitious characters and they did fine work that put money on their bank accounts and got them better, more rewarding work. I'm not sure if Morgan Freeman is ashamed or proud of what his role as Hoke Colburn represented to/about black Americans to the world, but I'm sure he appreciates that it gave him the bump (along with "Glory") to move on to better, choosier roles (like narrator of penguin movies and all-around-voice-of-God go-to guy). The lesson still stands: unless you're Denzel or Morgan or Perry (the latter only because he writes/directs/produces his own stuff), if you're a black actor you gotta take the roles given to you instead of being assumed to be cross-over enough to qualify for 'normal' roles like lead detective or father of the bride.

    Dan Akroyd did only supporting work but this is one his better early non-comedic roles (along with "My Girl") that showed me there was more to him than "SNL" and "Ghostbusters." For my money Akroyd's Boolie Werthan is the most likable character in "DMD" because he comes across as a decent person and loving adult son while the other two leads are basically symbols/stereotypes that are given life because they're played by veteran movie stars.

    And Jessica Tandy was basically at this point in her life (81 years old) rewarded for a lengthy body of work with an 'ata girl' career work Oscar. In a weird way I'm nostalgic of a time when the Academy didn't care if old-skewing movies like "DMD" cleaned at the awards and would definitely tilt the ratings demographics way high. If "DMD" were transplanted to 2011 (where it would have also lost to "The Artist," Hollywood's valentine to old movie magic... barf!), would an actress as old as Mrs. Tandy would have even been nominated for fear her sure-bet win would have driven the young women TV audience way down? Given how old-white-conservative the Academy membership is it made sense they rewarded their own elite members. Plus Jessica was in "Cocoon: The Return" with her 'schmoopy' Hume Cronyn the year before ('88); talk about a comeback!

    Let's hate "Driving Miss Daisy" for what it stands and what it means, but let's at least acknowledge the actors inhabit their roles with enough conviction to make it a decent, tolerable and well-acted re-enactment on film of a critically-acclaimed theatrical play. The filmmakers are another story entirely. Bruce Beresford (director), the Zanucks (Richard & Lili) and Alfred Uhry (screenwriter of his own play) should be ashamed to show their face in public... if anybody knew what they actually looked like! :-P

  2. Ah, my illiterate snicker!! After I googled coprophagia, the whole piece really came together. In all seriousness, I really enjoyed the read.

  3. "Do the Right Thing" is a God damned masterpiece. Whatever positive feelings I have toward "Driving Miss Daisy" (and there are scarce few. It's pleasant enough, but nothing extraordinary) is really tainted by how amazing "Do the Right Thing" is and how overlooked it was. I don't wanna be THAT guy, but a friendly suggestion: I think a nice compliment to your (awesome) column would be a point-counterpoint sort of thing. Bringing up "Do the Right Thing" and how it did everything "Driving Miss Daisy" was trying to do and actually being good, is a perfect example of that, and I would have liked reading more analysis on that. Or maybe you nailed it with what you had and I 'll just shut up and enjoy what you put out.

  4. Because I stumbled upon your website I'm writing this three years after your commentary, and I apologize for that. And although everything you say has merit, and is basically true, the real problem is that films, and often plays, are unable to portray most people, and most especially older people as anything other than stereotypes. I'm an elderly actor, and the only parts open to a woman of my age are bigoted old ladies. In the past I've played these onstage, but there were also other choices. But not when a woman gets older, which is why I've been debating whether to audition for a local upcoming performance of "Driving Miss Daisy". (Playwrights, and movie makers tend to forget that people of my age are the ones that often started the changes in the 60s.) There are far too few films where the lead, and not the second banana, is a person of color. It seems that too often you have to make either a 'black' film or a 'white' film to achieve that. And just as an afterthought, I'm really tired of being thought a bigot just because of my age.

  5. I think Driving Miss Daisy has been completely misunderstood. What I saw was a movie about a character disordered, narcissistic woman who by the end of her life has been abandoned by everyone, including her family. On her deathbed, the only person who comes to see her is her old servant, who she basically treated like shit. And she is deluded enough to think of him as her "only" friend!

    He has the good grace and manners to let her believe it.

    That's what I saw in Driving Miss Daisy, the "heartwarming" relationship between the two of them is just subterfuge. It's a dark, dark film posing as a sentimental story.

  6. It's been decades since I saw it but that's basically how I remember it too. She was obnoxious and demanding and she didn't learn a thing about racism. And I wouldn't call an old Jewish woman a white messiah. I think it was more his story and the sh*t he had to put up with.

  7. She wasn't 113. At the beginning she's 72 and it takes place over a 25 year period. Do the math.