Reconsidering “Ms. Daisy”

“Driving Miss Daisy!’ a skillfully made and beautifully performed movie, is essentially a feel-good film about our most searing problem: race relations. Who wouldn’t wish that current tensions between Jews and Blacks (confrontations around Jesse Jackson, Louis Farrakhan, Ed Koch and many others) could be resolved as sweetly as those between Hoke, an utterly forebearing and courtly Black man played by Morgan Freeman, and Miss Daisy (Jessica Tandy), a difficult, tight-fisted old Jewish lady with progressive civil-rights sympathies?

Why the white family in the film should be defined as Jewish — apart from the fact that the portrait of Daisy is built on writer Alfred Uhry’s own grandmother — doubtless relates to Jews’ historical identification with Blacks. More than once the film equates the sufferings of both groups, as in the scene that parallels the burning of a present-day Jewish temple with a long-ago lynching of a childhood friend’s father. To suggest, however, that Blacks and Jews are now, or have been in the past, in exactly the same boat, is extremely simplistic and has little relevance to the real issues out there.

The deepening bond at the film’s center — Miss Daisy taking Hoke’s hand and calling him her best friend, or Hoke, in the last sequence, spoon-feeding Miss Daisy — is guaranteed to fill us with emotion. Director Beresford has a gift for sharply honing in on small human truths; what might have been sentimental is not rendered so. Nevertheless, the story of these two old people — joined across race by ties of aging, shared experience and humanity — ultimately is too easy and too neat. The film is, finally, like a carefully calibrated, very high-level TV drama. The setting is comfortably, reassuringly distanced from painful present-day complexities.

If there is any brave truth in “Driving Miss Daisy ” it has to do with old age. Built as the film is, entirely around a very old woman — no youthful eroticism, no violence — this is utterly unlikely material for commercial American cinema. What makes this picture of the anguish of old age commercially feasible is the feistiness of the heroine, her resistance to help offered, her prickly, sassy remarks.

Jewish feminists might see stereotyping here: the Jewish mother has always been viewed by male Jewish writers as difficult — and presumably much more difficult as she becomes older (even though it’s also possible that Uhry’s grandmother was exactly as difficult as the character here portrayed). At any rate, the old lady as an impossible crotchety character is the running joke of the film. The two men continually exchange looks of amusement and make gentle jokes at her expense, although they do so carefully.

Though we all doff our hats towards certain older spirited women, I think it’s hard for feminists to find this particular crustiness attractive: Miss Daisy’s always wanting to do everything herself, refusing to accept correction until the advising person’s back is turned, never admitting to any vulnerability. Because we have no sense of how Daisy has forged a self-possessed identity (we only have a glimpse of her playing mah-jongh and going to temple), we can’t attribute her personality to valor.

What does work well, though, is Daisy’s sass seen in the context of the struggle against old age. When Daisy’s facade collapses — in the couple of scenes at the film’s conclusion in which Daisy is finally fully defeated by the deterioration of age — it is painful and shocking. She slips from full alertness to dissociation, from testy control to total loss of control. The one snappy, critical thrust she makes at her son leads Hoke to call this “one of her good days!’ This, indeed, is how Daisy’s crustiness has functioned throughout the film: making the pain of old age bearable for a mass audience.

As Hollywood goes, “Driving Miss Daisy” may look like mature and serious filmmaking, a venture that’s way out on a limb. But everything, of course, is relative. The film ducks current realities in many ways, by setting itself in the less ambiguous past and by focusing on the least threatening of racial arenas: an ultimately fair-minded, old lady and an elderly Southern gentleman.

In time-honored tradition, the Black man is carefully placed beyond sexuality and is cast as helper and servant. His muttered ironies and his assertions of his rights are calculated to ruffle no one’s feathers. And, again, difficult old Jewish mothers/ grandmothers are always fair game.

So although “Driving Miss Daisy” has been uniformly applauded, I continue to sit on my hands.

Barbara Quart has written Women Directors: The Emergence of a New Cinema (New York: Praeger, 1988) and many articles and reviews for such publications as Ms., The Nation, Film Quarterly and Midstream. She teaches at the College of Staten Island, CUNY.