Having just finished watching Driving Miss Daisy (dir. Bruce Beresford, 1989) for the first time, I have now seen all eighty-six films to win Best Picture. (Stay tuned for an upcoming series of posts in which I rank them from worst to best.) Beresford’s film falls somewhere in that hazy gray area between good and bad cinema. It even looks hazy; the cinematography is burnished and soft, almost bleached out. Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy are first-rate, but their roles are soft-ball parts, so cozy and unchallenging that there’s not enough for them to do, and the performances end up feeling phoned-in. (They’re powered by the sheer magnetism of Tandy and Freeman’s personalities.) If the film never really does anything egregious, it also contains no surprises: we know immediately that Freeman’s devilish charm will soon melt Tandy’s icy heart, which we also know really isn’t icy at all.
While the racial politics of this film are only quietly distasteful in the same well-meaning, middlebrow way that they are in, say, The Help, it’s impossible for Driving Miss Daisy not to feel roughly fifty years more old-fashioned than it is when one remembers that 1989 was also the year of Spike Lee’s trenchant Do the Right Thing, one of the most devastating movies about race relations in America (or about anything) ever made. (FYI: Do the Right Thing was nominated for two Oscars that year, for Best Supporting Actor and Best Screenplay. It won neither. Driving Miss Daisy was nominated for nine awards and won four.) To look at the two films side by side is to see an image of the Hollywood film industry in black and white. Do the Right Thing is a “scary” black movie, a radical defense of black militancy, and a call to arms, with tragic overtones (and edgy, in-your-face comedy). Driving Miss Daisy is, by contrast, reassuring, quiet, and tasteful.
I don’t like to beat up on films like Driving Miss Daisy and The Help too badly, because I don’t find them insidious; they’re essentially soft liberal social-problem pictures of the kind that Hollywood has always made. Watching them, you’re likely to squirm not because they betray some latent bigoted ugliness but rather because you can feel the well-intentioned white filmmakers and actors trying to say something ennobling and meaningful about race but not knowing what to do with the black characters and actors. The latter become sanctified and boring, and the whole thing enterprise ends up feeling awkward. Are Driving Miss Daisy and The Help reprehensible films? I don’t think so. But they’re limited by the blind spots that inevitably come from approaching the question of race from a white perspective. They’re embalmed by their own fear of saying anything real.