The story of the civil rights movement is how an entire generation of African-American activists, artists and everyday citizens organized for a multiyear campaign to be accepted as full equals in American society, rather than “separate, but.” That’s also the version that’s all too rarely told in mainstream movies. As far back as 1967’s Best Picture winner, In the Heat of the Night, Hollywood has tended to distill the larger canvas of that era into narrowly specific stories of black and white characters who begin the story at odds only to eventually find common ground. Later examples range from 2011’s The Help to this year’s Best Picture nominee Green Book, as well as contemporary films about race relations, including 2009’s The Blind Side and 2019’s The Upside — all of which were tellingly directed by white filmmakers.
It’s a genre that New York Times cultural critic Wesley Morris described as “racial reconciliation fantasies” in a compelling January essay that also pointed out how many of those relationships are transactional in nature. “They symbolize a style of American storytelling in which the wheels of interracial friendship are greased by employment, in which prolonged exposure to the black half of the duo enhances the humanity of his white, frequently racist counterpart,” Morris wrote. “All the optimism of racial progress — from desegregation to integration to equality to something like true companionship — is stipulated by terms of service.”
The poster child for Morris’s argument — so much so that he opens his essay by describing its poster — is Driving Miss Daisy. Released 30 years ago in December 1989, this small, almost unassuming account of a decade-spanning friendship between an elderly Jewish schoolteacher and her African-American chauffeur (played by Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman) has taken on an outsized place in the country’s ongoing conversation about race and representation onscreen, particularly in the context of the Oscars. Screenwriter Alfred Uhry adapted the film from his own 1987 stage play, which won a Pulitzer Prize and an Obie Award for Best Off-Broadway Play. The film version, directed by Australian filmmaker Bruce Beresford, received nine nominations, and won four statues, including Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture.
Had it won that statue even a year earlier, Driving Miss Daisy might not have become the flash point it is today. But 1989 was also the year of Spike Lee’s groundbreaking film, Do the Right Thing, a bold, bracing exploration of the gulf that still separated America’s white and black population in the present day. In Lee’s film, friendship is no guarantee of reconciliation. That Oscar voters completely ignored Do the Right Thing (the film wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture) while selecting Driving Miss Daisy as the year’s best movie would seem to prove Morris’s case that Hollywood prefers racial reconciliation fantasies to the harsher reality. Lee has always been vocal about that snub, and it isn’t lost on anyone that this year’s Best Picture race pits hits latest movie, BlacKkKlansman, against Green Book — a movie that has often been described as a reverse Driving Miss Daisy — in a match-up that will potentially allow history to repeat itself.
For the record, Uhry likes both movies. “I love BlacKkKlansman,” the now 82-year-old writer tells Yahoo Entertainment. “I enjoy Green Book for what it is. It’s a good movie.” He also thinks the Academy made a mistake by snubbing Do the Right Thing in 1989. “That’s a wonderful, wonderful movie,” the now 82-year-old writer tells Yahoo Entertainment. “It should’ve been [nominated]. I’m glad that mine won, but Do The Right Thing is a great movie that I never in a million years could’ve written.”
That latter point is essential to keep in mind while reflecting on Driving Miss Daisy as a movie, rather than a larger symbol, three decades later. Uhry based the story on his own experiences growing up as the son of a Jewish family in Georgia before and during the civil rights era. The title character, Miss Daisy, is directly modeled after his own grandmother, Lena Fox, and her driver, Hoke, is based on Fox’s driver, Will Coleman. “He was like the only grandfather I ever had,” Uhry says of Coleman. “I wanted to write about Will Coleman, and I didn’t want to presume to write family stuff about a black character, because I didn’t know. So I could only write really from what I saw, and what I knew.”
That observational quality is felt in the film, which unfolds as a stream of vignettes that span over 20 years in the characters’ lives together. We rarely see Daisy or Hoke apart, and information about their respective histories is doled out in bits and pieces, rather than through extensive flashbacks or separate plot threads. Reflecting its theatrical origins, the cumulative power of Driving Miss Daisy rests on the way Tandy and Freeman’s performances evolve in tandem. “It is an immensely subtle film, in which hardly any of the most important information is carried in the dialogue and in which body language, tone of voice or the look in an eye can be the most important thing in a scene,” Roger Ebert wrote in his four-star review. Acknowledging that he was highly suspicious of the movie going in, then-Washington Post critic Desson Howe wrote that he was ultimately won over. “The movie gets you mainly because Morgan Freeman … takes the wheel and drives “Daisy” all the way home.”
Revisiting the movie for the first time since 1989 for his New York Times essay, even Morris acknowledged that it “operates with more finesse, elegance and awareness than my teenage self wanted to see,” thanks to the “platonic love” that develops between the two characters. Throughout the movie, one can almost sense the Uhry spectral presence in the car alongside Tandy and Freeman, in much the same way his younger self would have watched Lena and Will from the backseat. “I couldn’t write from anybody else’s point of view but mine,” he says, emphatically. “It’s a very particular story about specific people, not about a race. I was writing about two people who really cared deeply, but couldn’t show it really because of the way society was.”
Still, Uhry’s ultra-specific focus does mean that some of the harsher realities of the time feel pushed to the margins. Driving Miss Daisy doesn’t entirely ignore the perils that came hand-in-hand with the deeply engrained racism that dominated life in the Deep South. In a scene written expressly for the movie, Hoke is driving Daisy to Mobile, Ala., when they’re pulled over by state police. While no violence occurs, the threat is heavy in the air — it’s the one time in the movie where Freeman’s face registers genuine fear for his life. “We put that in the movie, because a black man and a white woman driving through the South was not going to be an idyllic situation for people in those days,” Uhry explains. “I wanted the outside world to poke in a little bit.”
But only a little bit; Uhry says that overt displays of racism weren’t necessarily part of the childhood experience he drew on for his script. “I remember some woman in another car calling me dirty Jew when I came to a stop sign, and she wanted to go through. I remember those things happening a lot. It was just lurking outside all the time, and that’s what I wanted [in the film]. I didn’t want blow ups, with people going to jail, and the Ku Klux Klan walking around, and stuff like that. It was an incipient threat.”
It’s also notable that the encounter with the police is also the only time that anyone in the film utters the N-word. “In my house, there was no harsh language. It was a very genteel society. I don’t know what the Hoke character had to put up with all the time. I know that he saw his best friend’s father lynched, and I know there must’ve been a lot of indignities that happened to him. I know that he needed to make a living, and I know that he thought this was a good job. There’s a hell of a lot of ugly stuff that went on, I know that. But not in my house, and not between my grandmother and Will Coleman.”
Uhry is open to the idea that there’s a different version of Driving Miss Daisy that would show us what Hoke might have experienced outside of Daisy’s home. But that’s a version he knows he couldn’t have written, and it’s a version he doesn’t want to see his own script become. “If somebody wants to write their own version of life then [that’s fine],” Uhry says, adding that he’s eager to see more stories about the black experience told by black directors in general. “But leave my poor characters out of it. They’ve already had their say.” The same goes for an actor who might take on the role of Hoke with an interest in exploring details about his life that may not be on the page. “Just don’t change the lines. Say what’s written. Think what you want — that’s part of acting.”
Freeman’s own thoughts on Hoke — a role he originated Off-Broadway and immortalized in his Oscar-nominated screen performance — have seemed somewhat contradictory over the years. In a 2014 Yahoo Entertainment Role Recall, he described playing one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, the one in which Hoke first convinces Daisy to be driven to the local grocery store, with visible fondness. But 14 years earlier, during an interview at London’s National Film Theatre, he suggested that the role might have been a “mistake,” in that it typecast him in peoples’ minds. “The character caught on — this wise, old, dignified, black man.”
Uhry says that Freeman — who also grew up in the Deep South before the civil rights era — encouraged him to lean into that now-archaic version of an African-American man. “When we did the play, Morgan said, “If we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna do it.” And he encouraged me to put in more ‘Yassums’ and more deferentials, because that’s the way it happened. It both amuses and annoys me that the play now, or the movie certainly, has been judged by 2019 standards about something that happened in the 1940s and ’50s. I wanted to report the way it really was, and I did.”
Even as the movie version has fairly or unfairly come under scrutiny, Driving Miss Daisy continues to be revived onstage. In 2010, James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave headlined a production that played Broadway and the West End. At a time when Viola Davis has openly expressed her regret about appearing in The Help, taking on the role Hoke might be a difficult choice for a black actor to make.
Speaking with actor Russell Hornsby recently, we asked whether the Fences co-star be interested in playing the character in a revival. “Let me say this: I think when things have been done and done well, it’s best to leave them alone. Morgan Freeman is an icon.” And Hornsby makes it clear that he doesn’t have any negative opinions about Driving Miss Daisy as a whole. “I thought it was a film that, at the end of the day, was well-done and reflective of that period of which it took place in. I think it was as honest as it could be at that time.”
In recent years, we have seen black directors tell the kinds of stories from the Civil Rights era that Uhry acknowledges he couldn’t, most notably Ava DuVernay’s Selma, which was nominated for Best Picture in 2015. And in 2018, Hornsby appeared in a contemporary race-relations drama that could point the way forward for how Hollywood can move beyond the limitations Driving Miss Daisy while still retaining its authentic personal touches. That movie is The Hate U Give, an adaptation of Angela Thomas’s best-selling YA novel that was inspired by her own life as a disadvantaged teenager in Mississippi, as well as real-world news stories about police shootings of black youths.
As brought to the screen by Soul Food‘s George Tillman Jr., the film deftly balances the story of one African-American family’s specific experience, with a larger eye towards the racial realities of the world around them. (Interestingly, The Hate U Give premiered at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival alongside Green Book, and the two represent a marked contrast in more than just their respective time periods.) “I knew that what I read on the page was deeply authentic, profoundly so, and I always engage with that,” Hornsby observes of The Hate U Give, which is now available on to watch on various digital platforms as well as 4K, Blu-ray and DVD. “In the 21st century, I think we’re looking for proper, authentic representations no matter who they are. Whether you’re talking about LGBTQ, African Americans, Irish, Italian, Jews. I think what we want is honest, authentic portrayals in representation in film. History being the guide, I think that we’re sophisticated enough to be able to discern what that looks like.”
Yahoo Entertainment’s Diversity in Hollywood 2019 Report
Part 1: Where we are, how far we have to go and how we can get there
Part 2: By the numbers
Part 3: Why it’s time for change and 5 possible solutions
Part 4: Crossroads at the Oscars
Part 5: The future is now