Let’s Go to the Movies: “Driving Miss Daisy”

(This blog entry was originally a sermon preached on World Communion Sunday.)

One of my favorite movies is “Driving Miss Daisy.” For those who have not seen the movie, it is the story of an aging Southern Jewish lady who is forced to give up driving. Reluctantly and over a long period of time she finally accepts her son’s offer to secure a black man named Hoch to be her chauffeur. 

Miss Daisy reminds me of a lot of elderly women I’ve known over the years. And unfortunately, Hoch reminds me of the many games blacks had to play to survive in the racist South. But for all their differences, they were amazingly similar. They were both the objects of ridicule and prejudice. For example, on a trip to Mobile, Alabama, they park by a pond to eat their lunch. Two state troopers stop to interrogate Hoch whom they assumed had stolen an expensive car. (They did not immediately see Miss Daisy sitting in the back seat.) When Hoch produces his license and the registration of Miss Daisy’s car, one of the troopers notices her Jewish surname. As Hoch and Miss Daisy drive away, one trooper says to the other: “An old n…r and an old Jew woman taking off down the road together. That is one sorry sight.”   

In another scene Hoch is driving Miss Daisy to her weekly synagogue service when they find the street leading to the synagogue blocked by police. Hoch inquires as to what had happened and is told that the synagogue had been bombed. Miss Daisy wonders out loud who would do such a thing. Hoch responds, “Now you know, good as me, Miss Daisy—always be the same ones.” Later Hoch says that the bombing of the temple reminds him of the lynching of a black man he knew when he was a boy. Miss Daisy responds angrily, “The temple has nothing to do with that.”  She cannot acknowledge the connection between the anti-Semitism Jews experienced with the racism Hoch and millions of other blacks endured. Hoch, of course, knew that in the Deep South, both forms of bigotry were tragically and inextricably related. 

During the movie Idella, the cook and housekeeper for Miss Daisy, dies in Miss Daisy’s kitchen while shelling peas. Hoch, Miss Daisy, her son, and daughter-in-law attend Idella’s funeral in a black church. In the next scene Hoch prepares to eat his meal in Miss Daisy’s kitchen while Miss Daisy sits at the formal dining table in the dining room. Both are in mourning. They both realize what a special person Idella was. Each needs the company of the other in this time of loss. But according to the convention of that day, a black man was not allowed to sit at table with a white woman. So, they grieve in sad, pitiful silence.

Later in the film, Miss Daisy has received invitations to hear Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr speak. She asked her son to go with her, but he declined pointing out that his attendance could hurt his business. Hoch drives her to hear Dr. King. As they arrive, she makes a weak offer of inviting Hoch to join her. Hoch, on this occasion, refuses to be patronized or slighted. So, he declines the offer, but for a totally different reason from that of her son. Miss Daisy sits at a table after a dinner which was included in the event. She listens to Dr. King with others who also claim to be supporters of civil rights while Hoch sits in the car listening to the great civil rights leader on the radio. During Dr. King’s speech, Miss Daisy looks at the empty seat beside her. One senses that she wishes Hoch could be there, but she is too proud to admit the mistake of her late and half-hearted invitation. Throughout the movie, she insists that she is not prejudiced, but like too many of us, her actions and words reveal a prejudicial side she will not acknowledge and from which she cannot repent. 

Years later when Hoch arrives at Miss Daisy’s house, he finds her confused and frantic. Dementia has set in. In the midst of her ramblings, there is a moment of poignant clarity. She looks at Hoch and says, “Hoch, you are my best friend.” She then takes his hand as they wait for Miss Daisy’s son to come and put her in a home.

In the final scene of the movie Miss Daisy’s son drives Hoch to the rest home. Miss Daisy dismisses her son who tells Hoch, “She wants you all to herself.” Hoch and Miss Daisy commiserate as they confess to one another that they each have their good days and bad days and they are doing the best they can. On this Thanksgiving Day (one of her good days), the home has prepared a turkey dinner with all the trimmings, including pumpkin pie. Sitting with Miss Daisy at the dinner table, Hoch notices that Miss Daisy has not eaten her dessert. He draws her attention to the pie. She tries to eat it, but her trembling hand will not allow her to get a single bite to her mouth. Gently, slowly, and lovingly Hoch takes the fork from her and feeds her as Miss Daisy looks deeply into Hoch’s eyes and realizes once again that he is truly her best friend. 

The great tragedy of that movie is that Miss Daisy realizes too late in her life what a treasure she has in Hoch. He is one of the few people who really loves, understands, and likes her. They shared far more than Miss Daisy’s prejudice would allow her to acknowledge. I wonder how different her life would have been if on that night of Idella’s funeral she had joined Hoch in the kitchen or had invited Hoch to her dining table. And I wonder how different humanity might be if we could learn to truly “break bread together.” 

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