Driving Miss Daisy: A Beloved, Warm-Hearted, Edifying Film--With Much Left Unsaid

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Closely based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Alfred Uhry, Driving Miss Daisy (for which Mr. Uhry wrote the screenplay) was released in January 1990. Set in mid-twentieth-century Atlanta, Driving Miss Daisy stars Jessica Tandy as Daisy Werthan, an elderly Jewish-American widow who has lost her ability to drive, and Morgan Freeman as Hoke Coleburn, an aging (although younger than Daisy), illiterate, and unemployed African-American man hired as Daisy's chauffeur. Driving Miss Daisy takes place between 1948 and 1972, the golden age of African-American and Jewish-American individuals and groups working in close partnership in support of civil rights. Over the course of nearly twenty-five years, an improbable, slow-building, yet deep and affectionate friendship grows between the obliging and patient Hoke (a role that veers uncomfortably close to the "good negro" or "Uncle Tom") and the feisty and suspicious Daisy. Early in the film, both Daisy and Hoke betray some bigotry or prejudice toward the group represented by the other. Ultimately, however, Driving Miss Daisy reminds us that, while they represent different races, religions, classes, and genders--and, in perhaps the greatest obstacle to true friendship, are employer and employee--Hoke and Daisy share, to varying degrees, the status of "other" or "outsider" in the context of mainstream American society.


The Hollywood film community doubted the popular appeal of a film whose protagonists were an old African-American man and Jewish-American woman and the focus of which was a highly personal, character-based exploration of the somewhat obscure (albeit historically rich) subject of Black-Jewish relations in the American South of the not-too-distant past. Indeed, lack of available financing required producers The Zanuck Company to pare the film's budget from $12.5 to $7.5 million. Despite absence of support in the film's formative stages, Driving Miss Daisy was a popular and critical triumph. It earned more than $70 million in its initial distribution (Turner 1991, 344-5) and was nominated for nine Academy Awards. It received Oscars for "Best Actress in a Leading Role" (Jessica Tandy); "Best Picture" (Richard D. Zanuck); and "Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium" (Alfred Uhry; Driving Miss Daisy also received an Oscar for "Best Makeup"). Morgan Freeman was nominated for "Best Actor in a Leading Role." Dan Aykroyd, who played Daisy's devoted and gently decisive son Boolie (whose good-nature, humor, and generosity distract from the specter of white-male privilege represented by his character), was nominated for "Best Actor in a Supporting Role."


Uhry Alfred.jpg 

Alfred Uhry (born 1936; pictured above) and the The Zanuck Company were extraordinarily successful in writing and producing, respectively, a most unusual Jewish-American film--one set wholly in the American South, far from New York City and its hegemonic associations with American Jewishness. As noted by Eliza R. L. McGraw in Two Covenants: Representations of Southern Jewishness, Driving Miss Daisy "...made American moviegoers aware of the ongoing presence of southern Jewishness" and "Miss Daisy...remains the prototypical cinematic representation of a southern Jew" (McGraw 2005, 113). Moreover, Uhry and The Zanuck Company created a film of universal appeal. In a review of Driving Miss Daisy that ran in Time Magazine on December 18, 1989, Richard Schickel wrote, "Alfred Uhry's adaptation of his Pulitzer-prizewinning play aspires more to complex observation of human behavior than to simple moralism about it. Precisely because it has its priorities straight, it succeeds superbly on both levels." I respect Mr. Schickel's assessment and the decisions made by Mr. Uhry in shaping a coherent--and broadly resonant--narrative. As Eliza McGraw states, however, Driving Miss Daisy is based firmly in history, yet--unless made aware of this fact through other means--one may view the film and remain unaware of its concrete historical context.


Alfred Uhry and the character he created, Daisy Werthan, are members of a German-Jewish community in Atlanta dating to the 1840s. The story may be apocryphal, but it is widely believed that the first Caucasian baby born in Atlanta was Jewish (Greene 1996, 64). Although this community was extremely assimilated by the mid-twentieth century, circumstances prevalent across American society and others specific to Georgia and Atlanta kept them largely separate from the city's Anglo-Saxon elite. The first, and most widespread, among these was the wave of anti-Semitism that greeted the massive influx of Eastern European Jews who immigrated to America between 1880 and 1920 and continued through World War II. A psychic scar more specific to Atlanta's Jewish community was the lynching of factory-manager Leo Frank (1884-1915), who was accused, tried for, and convicted of murdering a young girl who worked in the factory he managed. As evidence mounted pointing to Frank's innocence, a mob stormed the prison in which he was held and lynched him; Frank holds the distinction of being the only white man lynched in the United States. Within the era explored in Driving Miss Daisy, the Rosenberg espionage trial in 1953 cast a pall over all of American Jewry.


Pivotal in Driving Miss Daisy--the scene that most firmly underscores the shared, although unequal and quite differently experienced, "otherness" of African-Americans and Jewish-Americans--takes place while Hoke is attempting to drive Daisy to synagogue, or temple. Stuck in traffic, Hoke learns that the jam has been caused by the bombing of Daisy's (and Uhry's) venerable and socially prominent synagogue--which is a real entity colloquially known in Atlanta as The Temple. Daisy asks Hoke if he knows who is responsible, to which Hoke replies, "You know good as me, Miss Daisy, it always be the same ones," referring to the racists and anti-Semites responsible for a wave of terroristic bombings that swept the South in the mid to late 1950s.  Melissa Fay Greene writes in The Temple Bombing (1996),


From May 17, 1954--the day the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that states could not lawfully separate children by race--until the end of the 1950s, hundreds of homes, schools, and houses of worship across the South exploded. Homemade bombs, bunches of dynamite, and suitcases filled with gunpowder killed and injured scores of people and demolished millions of dollars of property (Greene 1996, 4).


Even in this context of generalized threat and intimidation, the bombing of The Temple was not random. Jacob Rothschild (1911-1973), who served The Temple as its rabbi from 1946 until the time of his death, preached and acted tirelessly--some might say obsessively--in support of African-American civil rights. A history of The Temple posted on its website (www.the-temple.org) reads "Because of the late Rabbi Jacob Rothschild's insistence on racial integration, The Temple was bombed on October 12, 1958 at 3:37 a.m. Fifty sticks of dynamite blew open the northern side of the building." The wording of this sentence makes clear that the fight for African-American civil rights was primarily Rabbi Rothschild's cause rather than that of the majority of The Temple's congregants, who perceived active, public support for African-American civil rights amid a larger society opposed to such rights as a threat to their own economic and social well-being. Yet those congregants implicitly endorsed Rothschild's efforts by maintaining him in The Temple's pulpit. 


Driving Miss Daisy begins in the years following World War II and the Holocaust, in which Jews were made German society's ultimate Other and subjected to genocide. It may surprise some to learn that, throughout much of the nineteenth century in the United States, those of Irish, Italian, Southern and Eastern European, and Jewish heritage were considered non-white or somewhat less-than-white by many in the Anglo-Saxon mainstream (Brodkin 1998, 27). These groups gradually achieved "whiteness" as they assimilated. Ultimately, or so it may and has been argued, these groups "became white" because America had its own ultimate Others--African Americans, who were first subject to slavery and later to rampant, brutal, and legally sanctioned discrimination. Watching Driving Miss Daisy, we sense that Hoke enters the narrative with this knowledge, while Daisy--secure in her position of relative privilege and comfortable in her Jewish identity--learns it along the way.


Rabbi Jacob Rothschild is not a character in the film. One hesitates to lionize a champion of the oppressed when the oppressed themselves are better able to testify to their own suffering and struggles and are to be lauded for surviving and even achieving in the face of the most obstinate and venal challenges. It may be for this very reason that Uhry does not mention Rothschild in the film. Yet, when we remember and consider Rabbi Rothschild, his passionate commitment to the cause of equal rights for African-Americans, and his centrality to the Atlanta community of which Daisy, in particular, is part, we sense him as both witness to and catalyst for Driving Miss Daisy's story of interracial understanding, reconciliation, and friendship.



Brodkin, Karen 1998. How Jews Became White Folks & What That Says About Race in America. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press


Greene, Melissa Faye 1996. The Temple Bombing. New York: Random House


McGraw, Eliza R. L. 2005. Two Covenants: Representations of Southern Jewishness. Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press


Turner, Patricia A. 1991. "From Homer to Hoke: A Small Step for African American Mankind," in The Journal of Negro Education. Washington, D.C.: Howard University


Related reading

Benshoff, Harry M. and Griffin, Sean 2009 (second edition). American on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies. West Sussex, United Kingdom: Wiley-Blackwell


Mason, Angela J. and Viator, Timothy J. 1994. "Driving Miss Daisy: A Sociosemiotic Analysis," in The Southern Quarterly. Dallas, Texas: Southern Methodist University

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wow! I was not aware of the background on Uhry and Atlanta's Jewish community. Thanks for the added perspective on a movie I have seen more than once.

This is very interesting background information that speaks to the very rich and complex history of Jews and Blacks in the Deep South. I appreciate the context you provide to revisit this film.

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