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Driving Miss Daisy [Movie Review]

Summary

Driving Miss Daisy is a 1989 dramedy film that was adapted for the big screen from an Alfred Uhry off-Broadway play. The movie is primarily about the life of Daisy Werthan (Jessica Tandy), an incredibly stubborn and rude older woman living in Atlanta. Hoke Colburn (Morgan Freeman) is hired to work as Miss Daisy’s chauffeur in the 1940s and we see moments from their relationship and events of the time over 25 years. The film was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won four.

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Show Notes

Miss Daisy is not just stubborn as a lot of older people are very set in their ways. But she is incredibly rude, selfish, and self-absorbed. Thus working for her would be a nightmare. There aren’t many Black horror movies or thrillers that are good and/or have enough depth to analyze and discuss. I originally planned to review Driving Miss Daisy earlier in the year. But when I was planning out content for the year, I felt this movie could be a contender as a Halloween film.

Though Miss Daisy comes from humble means by this point in life she is financially comfortable, if not wealthy. A retired teacher, she lives by herself in a relatively large house that she once shared with her now-deceased husband. Despite living in what appears to be a fairly well-to-do neighborhood, Miss Daisy is cheap and very sensitive about not being perceived as putting on airs.

I’d seen bits and pieces of Driving Miss Daisy in the past though I don’t think I’d ever watched it all the way through in one sitting. Yet, in sitting down to watch and analyze the movie I was immediately struck by the presence of several stereotypes. The movie was very popular at the time of its release and has become a cultural icon from which people might not quote lines but rather make reference to the tedium and pace of Driving Miss Daisy. But in going back to read reviews of the film from around the time of its release, I was surprised that people seemed to like Miss Daisy.

Driving Miss Daisy begins with Miss Daisy accidentally backing her car out of the garage, off of an embankment, and into the neighbor’s yard. The car’s precarious position of resting on its rear end requires the assistance of a tow truck to get it upright and off for repairs. On its own, this is a situation that could have ended far worse. But it turns out that Miss Daisy has had multiple car accidents and is now deemed an unsafe driver by her insurance carrier. With no insurance company willing to provide coverage, it’s no longer physically or financially safe for her to drive.

A few years ago, there were multiple news stories about elderly people causing accidents or getting into predicaments with their cars. There was a call for or at least a discussion about elderly people having to give up their driver’s licenses. The concern is understandable but it’s not fair to make blanket judgments about the capabilities of the elderly. I know from driving in Atlanta and seeing how reckless people are that there are people of both genders and all ages who are terrible drivers. Though I do recall an incident where an elderly patient at my mom’s job caused a five-car pileup on the highway and drove away oblivious to anything being wrong.

It was just a few decades ago but things were a bit different in the 1980s. This is a well-put-together film but the characters are a collection of stereotypes. We first meet Idella, a mammy-like character portrayed by Esther Rolle. She’s a sarcastic domestic worker that stands by and watches what’s going on in the household. Idella makes snide remarks and comments in a sort of stage whisper about her thoughts on Miss Daisy’s shenanigans.

Miss Daisy’s adult son, Boolie (Dan Aykroyd), is married and lives nearby with his wife. He takes care of his mom and makes an effort to help her by making arrangements and offering assistance where needed. Miss Daisy lives alone though she does have Idella come in to do the cooking and cleaning. In her quest to remain independent, Miss Daisy declines any direct help from Boolie. She’s somewhat rude and snippy to everyone but is relatively less so with Boolie and Idella though she doesn’t seem to be a fan of Boolie’s wife.

I found Boolie to be a bit blah but his first interaction with Hoke kind of rubbed me the wrong way. He was a bit discourteous to Hoke when they first met at his factory. And this is after Hoke helped one of his employees get out of a stuck elevator. Imagine wanting someone to follow you and just taking off walking without actually saying something along the lines of “follow me” or “this way, please”.

Hoke is Hoke. He’s a nice older man who arrives at Boolie’s company for an interview it seems another worker helped to arrange. The character of Hoke is very inoffensive but a stereotype. He feels like a version of that “old negro uncle” caricature. Hoke has a Southern accent and that isn’t the issue but rather that his manner of speech is filled with that bygone “Yes’m”. And throughout Driving Miss Daisy aside from a few instances, he’s constantly smiling to the degree that at some points it seems like shucking and jiving.

Boolie takes it upon himself to hire someone to drive Miss Daisy around without getting her permission in advance. Knowing that she is stubborn and difficult, he believes it might be more effective to put the person in place and leave his mom with no other choice but to use their services or public transportation. With the knowledge that he’s paying for this man to come and drive her around, it’s up to Miss Daisy to waste her money by not using him to drive her car around and help her get to where she needs to go.

We don’t see Hoke outside of work but learn a bit about his life throughout Driving Miss Daisy. He was married for several years but is now a widower with adult children and grandchildren to whom he’s very committed. We learn from the scene at Boolie’s factory that Hoke is quite knowledgeable about mechanical things or at least with regards to elevators as he used to be an elevator operator. While he isn’t quite ready for retirement, Hoke is an older man and needs a job that wouldn’t be too strenuous.

Miss Daisy and Idella have been dealing with each other dating back to the time when Boolie was a young boy. The family is financially comfortable now and seems to have been for quite some time. Boolie owns and operates a successful business that bears the family name though I don’t recall if he started the business or if it was founded by his father.

Wanting to do things on her own and how she wants, Miss Daisy is incredibly resistant to any help offered by her son. She’s also dead-set against Hoke being hired to drive her around out of fear that she might be seen as trying to show off. I think these are her major concerns about Hoke being hired as her driver but they sound a bit petty. To get around this she tries to block him from doing work and thinks up reasons for him to be dismissed from the job.

For example, she has a rather bountiful stock of canned foods and other provisions in her pantry which she tracks closely. She expresses concerns to Boolie that Hoke will be a freeloader, eating up her food and running up her utility bills. But telling is her phrase “they all take things you know” and admitting to counting the silverware, dinner napkins, and whatnot. It’s not clear if she’s basing this on an experience or stereotypes about Black people. The scene when she notices an empty spot where there should be a can of salmon features a dramatic whodunit camera shot and music that perfectly matches her over-the-top pettiness.

She automatically assumes the worst about Hoke and believes that he’s out to take advantage of her as though he is a dishonest person. She quickly assumes that he’s a thief. But without prompting, he explains the situation and replaces the item that he took. But then there are multiple instances of him being a kind, compassionate, and honest individual. Yet, Miss Daisy continues to treat him otherwise. This negativity that she’s constantly on guard against says a lot more about her than it does about him.

It’s never quite explained but for whatever reason, Hoke seems to desperately need a job, this job. Whether the reality is that he needs or simply wants a job, Hoke goes out of his way to make himself useful. The more Miss Daisy pushes against having him work for her, the more he insists on trying to drive her and finding things to do around the house.

There’s an instance early on when Boolie brings Hoke by the house and Miss Daisy refers to Hoke as “these people”. She’s referring to Hoke directly but also indirectly talking about Black people in general. Boolie points out that she’s using the same kind of prejudiced language as some of the politicians of the time. To this, she replies that she’s not a prejudiced person. On the one hand, we see that Miss Daisy is rude and ornery with just about everyone. But through little remarks that she makes along the way it seems that some of this bitterness can be based on race.

While watching Driving Miss Daisy, I couldn’t help but wonder why Hoke was so determined to work for this woman. Maybe the job and pay were a good arrangement for a Black man with his skills at that time? But whatever the reason, he was determined to do everything possible to keep this job and that’s despite Miss Daisy doing everything possible on her end to run him off or push him out. In a sense, they’re both very stubborn but go about it differently as Miss Daisy is snippy while Hoke generally maintains a respectful and cordial demeanor.

Things come to a head during the scene where Miss Daisy is planning to catch the trolley to the store to pick up some cleaning supplies and household items. Determined to wear her down, Hoke drives alongside her as she walks down the street, passive-aggressively causing a scene. This woman doesn’t want her neighbors or anyone she knows to see her being driven and so his comical solution is to drive alongside her causing the neighbors to turn and watch. Miss Daisy caves and gets into the car as she’s embarrassed by the attention it has attracted.

And here begin these scenes throughout the rest of Driving Miss Daisy where Hoke is in the front seat driving and either looking over his shoulder or in the rearview mirror at Miss Daisy while she gives directions or they have conversations. To a degree, she’s given into the plan of Hoke driving her around. But Miss Daisy continues to fight for control by fussing about him speeding, functioning as the navigator, or otherwise being a backseat driver.

I couldn’t deal with driving with someone like Miss Daisy because it would make me crazy. And her complaints about Hoke speeding when he’s doing like 20 miles per hour have become a pop culture reference. But as the scene progressed, I became quite annoyed with Miss Daisy when she took the keys from Hoke to ensure that he couldn’t go anywhere. It was very petty, infantilizing behavior not just through her actions but also the way that she speaks to him.

It reminds me of when I was in high school and driving home from a family gathering with my grandfather. The speed limit in New York is quite low in comparison to Atlanta and some of its suburbs. But I distinctly remember sitting in the car and feeling like it was taking a long time to get home. And then I looked out the window and realized that we were going incredibly slow as people in the cars behind us were yelling and cursing. The other cars couldn’t all get around him but he was just taking his sweet time moseying along down the road creating a bottleneck.

The way Miss Daisy speaks to people reminded me of how Boolie’s wife, Florine, speaks to the women who work for her. It’s not blatantly racist but it certainly is a class thing where she is cordial, or at least respectful towards people from their social group. But she’s lacking in social graces when speaking to the people that work for her. Florine barks orders at the domestic workers in her house without the courtesy of so much as a “please.”

During Driving Miss Daisy, Florine interacts with two different domestic workers. I’m not sure if it’s a matter of race as both workers were Black or if it’s more of a class thing where she just talks down to people she sees as being below her. And then while preparing for the Christmas Party, the kitchen is filled to the brim with food but Florine complains because the ambrosia can’t be made without coconut which the lady forgot to purchase. I’d heard of ambrosia but have never eaten it so I googled it. I’m a fairly adventurous eater but ambrosia looks gross. She did everyone a favor by not making that mess.

Unfortunately, it’s revealed that Hoke can’t read, which likely explains why he’s holding on to this job as he has limited options for employment. Some time has passed but this would still be amid the early Civil Rights Era. Having grown up before then and depending on his family’s circumstances he likely didn’t have the opportunity to complete school. Also, consider the quality of schools that would have been available at the time for Black people.

I guess everyone has some capacity for being decent as in this case Miss Daisy in her snotty manner takes a bit of time to show Hoke how to use the alphabet as a building block to reading. And she later encourages him to continue his self-education by presenting him with a writing exercise book. Certainly a nice gesture. For a moment I thought maybe she’s not that bad or at least not all the time.

Yet, even when being nice, she’s still kind of rude. Maybe it’s a matter of her being insecure about her background as she constantly reminds people about her humble beginnings and having grown up on Forsyth Street. She speaks to everyone as though they’re all unruly children. Though this could also be a matter of having spent her career as a teacher.

Even with Hoke admitting that he’s unable to read, it’s not something that he should have been ashamed of, especially at that time. But, he’s a little sensitive about admitting that he can’t read. And though she helps him, Miss Daisy’s reaction and approach are a little snotty. It’s like, she can’t help herself. Even when being nice she can’t help but be rude which I found to be incredibly off-putting. She’s just one of these people that doesn’t know how to or doesn’t care about how she speaks to others.

Miss Daisy presents Hoke with the exercise book on the steps of Boolie’s home when she arrives for his Christmas Party. I’m assuming that despite the Werthans being Jewish the party isn’t on Christmas Day itself. But if people are gathered for something like this where it’s the holidays, why wouldn’t you at least offer him a plate? Maybe it’s because I’ve never had a driver or other types of servants before so I don’t know what the social norms are. But then again if all or most of the attendees have drivers, it would be a lot of extra food to offer them all plates.

There’s a scene where Hoke is supposed to be driving her to Mobile, Alabama to attend a family gathering. The agreement was that they’d leave at 7:15 am but when Hoke arrives at 7:03 am, Miss Daisy is carrying her bags to the car and fussing. She has all of two bags in the car but you would think they had to pack a moving truck before leaving.

In some ways, she reminds me of my grandfather who passed away last year. He was one of these older people where if you’re supposed to leave at 7:00, it’s 7:00. Not 7:03 or 7:05 and most certainly not 7:10. He’d get annoyed, take his going out clothes off, put back on his house clothes, and refuse to go. If a party starts at 6:00, don’t try to be fashionably late and get there when everyone else will. He expects to be there at 6:00 and if you get there early while they’re still setting up that’s even better. Eventually, we figured out that you just told him a later start time otherwise it would be you and the caterer hanging out in the empty venue.

Up to this point, we’d only seen Miss Daisy and Hoke drive around locally in Atlanta, primarily in Miss Daisy’s neighborhood. Thus in leaving the city and the state, it’s like leaving the bubble. We get a glimpse into what it’s like for Hoke to live during this time.

Despite his age, taking this trip to Mobile is Hoke’s first time leaving the state of Georgia. And unfortunately, given the era, it’s not new to Hoke but we witness a few brushes with the Southern structure of racism. Hoke is a grown man with a head full of gray hair who looks like somebody’s grandfather. Miss Daisy and Hoke stop at the side of the road to have lunch and are having a pleasant conversation when Hoke is approached by law enforcement officers who refer to him as “boy”.

Generally speaking, I don’t take issue with a young person speaking to another young person and referring to them as boy, guy, girl, etc. But you’re supposed to treat older people with a certain degree of respect. That’s not to say that you’re supposed to be deferential towards them but rather that there’s a way in which you speak to someone older than you. And this applies whether or not the person is a relative or stranger.

And that’s the lesser issue, more pressing is that the officers approached to ask Hoke what he was doing with that car. Not why are you stopped here or what are you doing here seemingly in the middle of nowhere just hanging out. But rather, why are YOU in possession of this car? Miss Daisy speaks up and explains that the car belongs to her and Hoke is her driver. While the scene takes place in the past, it is unfortunately still relevant in the present.

Yet, there is this thing throughout Driving Miss Daisy, where each time Hoke and Miss Daisy take a step forward in their friendship she does something to set it back. Each time they have a moment where it seems like she’s coming around and starting to treat him like a decent person would, she then takes a step back.

Miss Daisy insists on holding the map and providing directions from the back seat while Hoke is driving. She makes a mistake that results in them taking a wrong turn which takes them a bit off track. They’re now running behind schedule and darkness has fallen.

Driving for some time after stopping at a gas station, Hoke pulls over because he needs to use the restroom. But because Miss Daisy is so focused on her needs and desire to get to the party, she complains that he should have gone when they stopped at the service station. She attempts to deny him the right to use the bathroom. It’s unclear if she just wasn’t thinking or was unaware that as a Black man in the South during the Jim Crow era, bathroom facilities would be segregated. This means Hoke would be relegated to a Black Only bathroom and there was a good chance it would either be run down or not exist at all.

I appreciated Hoke finally standing up for himself by letting Miss Daisy know that her behavior was unacceptable. It’s ridiculous that in her quest to control everything, she would attempt to tell another adult or anyone for that matter when it’s an acceptable time for them to use the bathroom. And then when he steps out of the car she begins yelling for him. Part of it might be a matter of her being afraid to remain in the car by herself. But if he has to return to the car to check on you, that’s just further delaying him from using the bathroom and continuing the drive.

There’s a rather kind gesture on Hoke’s part when there’s a storm that knocks out the electricity in the area. He’s nice enough to drive to Miss Daisy’s house quite early in the morning, braving the bad weather and multiple accidents to check on her before Boolie does. She recognizes and expresses her gratitude and appreciation for his effort. And at this point, she now welcomes him to help himself to food from the fridge as it will otherwise go bad.

But then she receives an invitation to attend a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Boolie declines to attend because he claims to have nothing against Dr. King. but some of the people he does business with might not view it positively. That’s not to say he thinks they’d become angry, violent, or otherwise physically threatening. But that they might make jokes behind his back or give others greater consideration for business deals. They sound like petty excuses but so be it.

Boolie suggests that Miss Daisy invite Hoke instead. But for whatever reason, she waits until the last minute when Hoke is driving her to the event to say something. And once again, I was pleased that Hoke showed a bit of pride and turned down the invitation. Miss Daisy had known about the event or at least had received tickets a month before but waited until the absolute last minute to invite Hoke. It felt like an insincere gesture where Hoke was a last resort and she figured she’d just invite him.

It might not be a matter of prejudice on the part of Miss Daisy but rather a matter of cluelessness and privilege. She’s either wilfully unaware or just uninformed about things beyond her purview. Early on in the film, she makes comments like “these people” and “you know how they are”. By the time of the MLK event, she expresses that she’s grown to like him, which surprises Boolie. Yet, there’s still this ignorance on her part.

The speech featured during the MLK event is quite fitting. It’s about the people of the South where you have rabid racists but they’re more likely the minority as most people are moderate in life. Yet, moderate people are of particular concern because they idly stand by and allow injustices to take place. They turn a blind eye to what’s going on or at least decide not to get involved because it’s more convenient.

The content of the speech is very applicable to both Boolie and Miss Daisy. Boolie states that he’s not racist but decides against attending the speech rather than possibly standing up to his friends because they might call him names. Miss Daisy insists that she’s not prejudiced but there are multiple instances of her treating Hoke as less than human and being ignorant of how things work in this society.

Driving to the synagogue, the pair learn that traffic is backed up and there will be no service due to a bomb exploding. Miss Daisy is in denial that anyone could have such hate and animosity within themselves to bomb a synagogue. But this is the late 1950s during an increasingly turbulent time in America. This is the South and incidents of this nature had been occurring and would seemingly become more frequent in the years to come.

Hoke empathizes with her confusion and disbelief of this type of violence. He shares a story of his friend’s father being lynched and witnessing the aftermath as a little boy. It’s a terrible thing to bomb anyone’s place of worship, really to bomb anything because it puts people’s lives in danger. But to bomb a place where people are just coming to pray and have service feels especially terrible. In this case, it’s the bombing of a synagogue but countless Black churches had also been bombed. Why was she so shocked that a group of people who would attack one place of worship would consider themselves above attacking another? There’s just a disconnect.

And then at the end of the movie, Miss Daisy is now 97 and living in a retirement home. Boolie and Hoke meet up at the old house and travel together to visit Miss Daisy on Thanksgiving Day. Hoke should be home spending the day with his family, but here he is spending at least part of the day with Miss Daisy. Yet, I felt that things would be a lot different if the roles were reversed. I do not for a moment believe that Boolie would have driven Miss Daisy to visit Hoke in a nursing home on Thanksgiving Day nor do I think she would have wanted to visit Hoke on such a day.

I get being a dedicated friend but this woman was not Hoke’s friend when they were younger. I never get these kinds of characters, where there’s a Black person and they make all of the sacrifices in the friendship. In most relationships, friendships included, there’s some give and take. Yet, here Hoke bends over backward and is there whenever Miss Daisy is in need. And then no matter how badly she person treats him or however unreasonable she might be Hoke is patient and understanding. He’s burdened with looking past Miss Daisy’s ignorance and selfishness to recognize the good in her. The worse she treats him the more he smiles until the few moments when he can’t bear it anymore.

Outside of work, Miss Daisy relies on Hoke for comfort and company and comes to realize that he is her one true friend. And this is because he goes above and beyond to reach out to her, be compassionate and caring. He treats her like a human being but aside from her gesture to help him learn to read and write she doesn’t put the same effort into growing their friendship.

The ending would have been a lot more fitting if there was a greater transformation of the characters or if the relationship came to feel more balanced. Or the film ended with Miss Daisy feeding Hoke pie and taking care of him. Instead, here we are with Hoke taking care of Miss Daisy again, in this case feeding her pie. Hoke is constantly giving and Miss Daisy doesn’t have the good sense or courtesy to be nice in return.

I read the review for Driving Miss Daisy and was confused at what people took away from it at the time of its release. It felt as though we had watched completely different movies. I didn’t even realize that people regard Miss Daisy as the main character as I always thought it was about Hoke and the miserable woman that employs him as a driver. All in all, it’s an entertaining movie but is starting to show its age as some of the character types seem very outdated.

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