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How can two old dogs learn a new trick and overcome the deeply rooted seed of ethnic prejudice? In the movie Driving Miss Daisy, Daisy Werthan (played by Jessica Tandy) and Hoke Colburn (played by Morgan Freeman) uproot their assumptions through a friendship that develops over the last part of their lives. Within the context of the African American Civil Rights Movement and Jim Crow the movie addresses the African American-Jewish relationship from the outside-in and vice versa. In the process it paints a picture of Southern Jewishness as distinct from the typical Northern American Jew.
The movie covers a long span of time, twenty-five years to be exact (1948-1973). The African American Civil Rights Movement occurred during the middle of this time. The Movement saw a peak of the African American-Jewish relationship, a “golden age”. However, this relationship was mostly on behalf of Northern Jews. The indifference of Southern Jews is obvious, even when Daisy claims she isn’t prejudice she eats alone—it runs deep. The 1958 Atlanta Temple bombing (which the movie imitates) and to a lesser degree the lynching of Leo Frank (which had occurred much earlier in 1915) set the precedence for intolerance towards “others”.
The movie presents Jewishness in contrast to Southerness. Although none of the characters have the typical New York Ashkenazi style Jewishness, from Daisy to Florine there is a noticeable difference. The movie presents Jewishness in a strained relationship with assimilation. Daisy attends services regularly and plays mahjong, while Florine hosts Christmas parties and appears to have abandoned her Jewishness altogether. The contrast between the two highlights the generational shift towards assimilation. Even Boolie, who exists as an intermediate between the two women, is concerned about his degree of assimilation. When Daisy invites Boolie to attend the Martin Luther King Jr. speech, he declines because it would ostracize him from the white social community which might lead to them choosing another Jew for a business partner. Boolie’s concern for assimilation is twofold, and addresses the strained African American-Jewish relationship presented in the movie.
The driving theme of the movie is the exploration of the similarity of ethnic prejudice in both the form of anti-Semitism and racism. Although both African American and Jewish experience different components of ethnic discrimination, there is a fundamental similarity to be seen. The outsider perception of negative ethnic connotation is expressed by the Alabama police, when he says, “An old nigger and an old Jew woman taking off down the road together. Now that’s one sorry sight.” The statement focuses on the fact being African American or Jewish is unfavorable, not which is perhaps preferable to the other. The common differences between African American and Jewish people are apparent in both defining components, race and religion, amongst others. The movie shows that however many differences they may be able to find, the discriminators view them together as “other”.
The movie recognizes the difficulty of identifying the similarities from within the African American-Jewish relationship dynamic. Although it was instantly obvious to the policeman, Daisy and Hoke’s shared “otherness” only blossoms during the bombing scene. Although they don’t know specifically who committed the act, Hoke claims, “You know as good as me, Miss Daisy. It will always be the same ones.” Hoke is able to empathize with a shocked Daisy, because he can relate to having his ethnicity targeted by terrorist. The movie demonstrates the shared weight of the oppressed. However, it was only through time and effort in building a friendship that the two were able to share the pain—or perhaps more accurately that Hoke was able to see that being Jewish wasn’t as comfortable as he had thought.
Although the movie had a mixed reception, largely under the premise that it enforced racial stereotypes, I think the depictions serve their purpose well. The white characters are portrayed no more sympathetically, if not less so, than their black characters. Any claims beyond their personalities is a discrepancy with the past, which like it or not happened. The movie is significant because it demonstrates that conflict and differences between African Americans and Jews can be overcome with time and effort. Although African American-Jewish relations have dissolved over time, from the Jewish perspective at least, Driving Miss Daisy makes the romantic claim that a successful relationship isn’t impossible to achieve, just difficult.
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