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Driving Miss Daisy (1989) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

hoke boolie scene film

Principal social themes: aging, education/literacy, racism/civil rights

United Artists. PG rating. Featuring: Morgan Freeman, Jessica Tandy, Dan Aykroyd, Patti LuPone, Esther Rolle, Joann Havrilla, Alvin M. Sugarman, Clarice F. Geigerman, Muriel Moore, Sylvia Kaler, Carolyn Gold, Crystal R. Fox, Bob Hannah, William Hall Jr. Written by Alfred Uhry based on his play. Cinematography by Peter James. Edited by Mark Warner. Music by Hans Zimmer. Produced by Lili Fini Zanuck and Richard D. Zanuck. Directed by Bruce Beresford. Color. 99 minutes.

Overview

Driving Miss Daisy depicts the relationship between an elderly Jewish lady and her chauffeur, a black man who is a retired milk truck driver, over a twenty-year period from the late 1940s through the late 1960s. Based on a Pulitzer Prize–winning play, Driving Miss Daisy won the Academy Award as the best film of 1989. In addition, Jessica Tandy won the Oscar as Best Actress, and writer Alfred Uhry won for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Synopsis

In 1948, in suburban Atlanta, Daisy Werthan (Jessica Tandy) has an accident backing her car out of her driveway. Her son, mill operator Boolie Werthan (Dan Aykroyd), hires a chauffeur to drive her around. At first, the feisty woman is resentful, but her son explains that with her driving record at age seventy-two, no insurance company will issue her a policy. When Hoke Colburn (Morgan Freeman) reports for work, Daisy ignores him, and her housekeeper Idella (Esther Rolle) tells him he will face a difficult time fitting in. Short on groceries, Daisy plans to take a bus to the local supermarket. Hoke follows her in the new car, a Hudson, until Daisy relents and climbs into the backseat. When they arrive at the store, Hoke calls Boolie to tell him of his success. Daisy is still very crotchety about the situation and asks Boolie to dismiss the chauffeur for stealing a can of salmon. When Hoke arrives at work in the morning, he brings a can of salmon as a replacement since he was unable to eat the meal left for him the previous evening. Daisy is impressed by his honesty.

The first sign of friendship occurs when Daisy is driven to the cemetery to visit her husband’s grave. She asks Hoke to locate another grave, but he admits he is unable to read. A former teacher, Daisy decides to teach him, finding him an intelligent student. She gives him a book as a Christmas gift, even though she claims she never follows the Christmas custom. As the years pass, the film becomes episodic, highlighting different incidents in their relationship. When Boolie buys a new Cadillac for his mother, Hoke buys the Hudson for himself. Later, when Daisy’s brother turns ninety, she asks Hoke to drive her to his home in Alabama. At one point, a policeman stops them to check Hoke’s license and the car registration. As they leaves, the cop remarks to his partner that nothing is more depressing than watching an old Negro driving an old Jewess. Years later, Idella passes away while preparing supper, and Daisy and Hoke attend her funeral in the Baptist church. With some difficulty, Daisy takes over the cooking. The most upsetting incident is when Hoke drives her one Saturday to her synagogue, but becomes ensnared in traffic. Leaving the car, Hoke learns that an arsonist had torched the synagogue. Daisy becomes interested in the civil rights movement and attends a dinner in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Boolie suggests that she ask Hoke to accompany her. She hems and haws and only asks him while he is driving her to the event. Feeling somewhat slighted, Hoke declines, but he listens to King’s dinner speech on the radio. Daisy comments how pleased she is that relations seem to be changing between the races, but Hoke replies ironically that they have not changed all that much.

Eventually, Daisy begins to show signs of dementia, and she is placed in a nursing home. No longer able to drive, the elderly Hoke is unable to visit her, so Boolie brings him along when he pays a visit. In the last scene, Daisy is having one of her better days, and she chats warmly with Hoke, whom she now regards as her best friend.

Critique

Driving Miss Daisy manages to be profound, subtle, and insightful while on the surface seeming only a simple and amusing story. The events of the changing times of the 1950s and 1960s are seen obliquely through the prism of the two main characters, Hoke and Daisy. The foremost issue is aging, as both of them are approaching their twilight years, with Hoke about a decade younger. The ravages of time take their toll in a slow but inevitable process on them both. The signals of the passing years are marked by the almost imperceptible decline in their interests and abilities from scene to scene. The only rude shock in this process is Daisy’s dementia, for which Hoke is unprepared when the elderly woman imagines she is still a schoolteacher who has lost the homework assignments of her students. His gentle attempt to bring her out of it is one of the most poignant moments of the entire picture. The adult literacy issue is also skillfully handled by the performers and the script. In watching the film, viewers should carefully observe the scenes with Hoke paging through the newspaper to note the almost hidden signs that he cannot read. As a milk truck driver and later chauffeur, Hoke had to be familiar with the meaning of road signs. It is also clear he has no trouble with numbers, for example memorizing Boolie’s phone number so he could call him to report his success the first time Daisy permits him to drive her. Another interesting point is the enthusiasm Daisy feels when she teaches Hoke and observes his progress. Watching her joy and enrichment as she passes on these basic skills to the receptive student is another of the film’s special moments. The issue of civil rights, however, is more bluntly portrayed as an issue that separates Daisy and Hoke, as typified by her inability to invite Hoke to accompany her to the Martin Luther King Jr. dinner. The earlier scene in which her son Boolie explains why he should not attend the dinner is very well handled, particularly by Dan Aykroyd in his finest scene in the film. Another important moment occurs when the synagogue is destroyed, and Daisy rejects Hoke’s comparison of the incident to the targeting of black churches in the South. Hoke’s wistful comment about the slow change in race relation is another exceptional instance.

Director Bruce Beresford and the two major stars, Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy, deserve the critical praise they earned for this remarkable film.

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