Southern Cultures 7.2 (2001) 41-59
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Driving Miss Daisy
Southern Jewishness on the Big Screen
Eliza Russi Lowen McGraw
The release of the film Driving Miss Daisy in 1989 made American moviegoers aware of the ongoing presence of southern Jewishness. 1 Alfred Uhry wrote the film's screenplay from his 1987 autobiographically informed Pulitzer prize-winning play, the story of the relationship between Daisy Werthan, a Jewish Atlanta matron, and Hoke Colebum, her African American chauffeur. Like many Hollywood duos, Hoke, played by Morgan Freeman, and Daisy, played by Jessica Tandy, come together inauspiciously. Seventy-two-year-old Daisy crashes her car, and her son, Boolie (Dan Akroyd), deciding she needs someone to drive her, hires Hoke. At first Daisy will not even enter the car, but eventually Hoke wins her over. As they age, the two forge a strong and complicated bond that challenges some socially proscribed southern mores but leaves others intact. Driving Miss Daisy demonstrates the inseparability of Jewishness and history within a southern context. Daisy simultaneously exists within and without the dominant culture, figured throughout the film as representative because of her status as a white southern matriarch and exceptional because of her Jewishness.
Many films set in the South came out around the time of Miss Daisy. Steel Magnolias, for example, released the same year as Miss Daisy, depicts a group of women friends in Chinquapin Parish, Louisiana, whose lives center around the local beauty parlor. Although Bruce Beresford is Australian, by the time he began directing Miss Daisy he was already familiar with the landscape of the American South from his work on Crimes of the Heart (1987) and Tender Mercies (1983). Like Steel Magnolias, Crimes of the Heart stars a group of women, the three Magrath sisters who reunite in their tiny hometown of Hazlehurst, Mississippi, after Babe (Sissy Spacek), the youngest sister, shoots her husband.
Miss Daisy uses some of the same conventions to denote southernness onscreen that these other films use. Its light is the same October afternoon gloaming that permeates Hazlehurst and Chinquapin Parish at all times and seasons. Daisy's house appears as musty and congested as the Magraths', her quips as tart as those of the steel magnolias. "This is [Florine's] idea of heaven on earth, isn't it?" she asks her son when her daughter-in-law socializes with Episcopalians. 2 With its inclusion of southern Jewishness and the topic of race relations, however, the film extends cinematic conventions of southernness. Miss Daisy offers a visual vocabulary for southern Jewishness with its wide, bright shots of the Temple in Atlanta and southern-accented voices discussing synagogue carpooling and singing hymns in Hebrew. Noting that Daisy imperiously orders Hoke around while lauding Martin Luther King Jr., critics have cast Miss Daisy as a portrait of naive and reactionary white liberalism. Daisy's Jewishness, however, makes this depiction itself seem naive. In the film, southernness and southern Jewishness become interdependent, with Daisy's Jewishness the lens through which broader questions about southern race relations are interpreted. [End Page 42]
Miss Daisy's Atlanta
Atlanta, Georgia, Miss Daisy's setting, provides an appropriate forum for such complicated questions. As the site of Leo Frank's arrest as well as the Temple bombing depicted in Miss Daisy, the city has been the setting for tragic episodes for Jewishness in the South. Frank, a northern Jewish superintendent in an Atlanta pencil factory, swore he was alone in his office when Mary Phagan, a young white girl employed by the factory, was murdered on Confederate Memorial Day, April 26, 1913. Although the evidence was not conclusive, Frank was nevertheless charged and sentenced to death. Governor John Slaton later ruined his own political future by commuting that sentence to life imprisonment. Frank survived an attack in prison in which a fellow inmate slit his throat, only to be kidnapped [End Page 43] from his cell and lynched. During the turmoil of the Frank case, Jewish Atlantans, who had felt safe within their New South city, were treated as outsiders...