Monday, December 15, 2014

Portraying Progress in the South

Miss Daisy (Jessica Tandy): How are you?

Hoke (Morgan Freeman): I'm doing the best I can.

Miss Daisy: Me, too.

Hoke: Well, I reckon that's about all there is to it.

"Driving Miss Daisy," which was shown for the first time on this day in 1989, was a truly special movie about human relationships. Roger Ebert observed that it was "a film of great love and patience, telling a story that takes 25 years to unfold, exploring its characters as few films take the time to do."


It reminded me in many ways of the South in which I grew up. My grandmother was a lot like Miss Daisy — not nearly as wealthy (in fact, you couldn't call my grandmother wealthy at all, but she lived comfortably) nor was she Jewish (she probably would have bristled at that comparison), but still I saw many similarities. My grandmother's generation came of age when the so–called "N word" wasn't used so much as a slur but more as a description. What made it disparaging was any other words that one might say with it, but I never got the sense from my grandmother or her contemporaries that they meant anything negative, not even by implication, when they used it.

I'm not a linguist, but I've noticed in my life that Southerners seem to be more prone than most to give words their own pronunciations that kind of sound like the original words ... but aren't. Not really. It doesn't really seem to be an inability to pronounce the words correctly. I'm not really sure why, but, in a Southerner's hands (or, rather, mouth), a word like nuclear is frequently pronounced nuke–U–ler (George W. Bush took a public beating when he said it that way, but he was hardly the first Southerner I heard pronounce that word that way). A word like Massachusetts becomes Massa–TOO–shetts (some people with whom I went to school and who I respect to this day pronounce that word that way). Theatre becomes thee–AY–ter. And so on.

Actually, I've always thought of it as more of a country dialect than a Southern one. Maybe that's because the town in which I grew up was more rural than urban. (Things have changed there, as I have mentioned here before.)

But as I've gotten older I've come to think of it as linguistically lazy.

Not all Southerners speak that way, of course, but many do — and you can point out to them that they are mispronouncing words, but they will be completely unconcerned about it — which drives me nuts.

I put words like the "N word" in that category, at least in regard to its origin and my grandmother's generation's use of it. They grew up at a time when the socially accepted word for black Americans was Negro. As I understand it, the word black was the "N word" of that time. I find that interesting because in at least one language (Portuguese), the word negro actually does mean black. It replaced the word colored as the preferred word. (For awhile there — and I mean a very short while for it seemed to fall from public favor rather quickly — the preferred term was Afro American, then black was in favor for a long time before African–American became fashionable.)

My grandmother and her friends used the "N word" the way Mark Twain used it in "Huck Finn" — neither good nor bad unless so designated by the use of additional words. While it probably always had a disparaging angle, it seems to me that the "N word" only became entirely derogatory sometime in the mid–20th century.

But, anyway, Southerners really do seem to have this tendency to shorten words. The word Indian, for example, was often pronounced Injun in the 19th– and 20th–century South, and I honestly believe that is how the word Negro evolved into the "N word." I know that, while my grandmother and her friends used the "N word" frequently, it was intended as a description, not a slur. It was an adjective much of the time, and even when it was a noun, it usually wasn't meant disparagingly.

Of course, that doesn't mean that they didn't believe that there was some sort of racial order in the world — in which whites occupied the highest rung and all the other races were beneath them. In fact, I'm quite sure they did. They didn't really articulate it; they just accepted it as the way things were (and probably with an unexpressed sense of gratitude that they had been born on that higher rung — but probably without any sense of indignation that such a caste system should exist at all in America).

I have often wondered what my grandmother and her friends — or Miss Daisy — would have thought of a world in which the American president was black. Would they have tried to change their language to fit a new world? Would they have resisted? Or would they have struck some sort of personal compromise, using politically correct language in public and language they were raised with in private?

I'm sure they would have become defensive if it was even hinted that they might be prejudiced — just as Miss Daisy did. But they lived in a South that really doesn't exist anymore. The blacks in the movie — Morgan Freeman and Esther Rolle — held positions in Southern society that were consistent with what I observed as a child. They drove cars, and they cleaned homes. Some cooked meals and others carried trays at restaurants and country clubs. Some carried bags at airports and train stations. Their children and grandchildren went to schools that were separate from the ones the white children attended.

You might think from what I have written that the "N word" played a major role in "Driving Miss Daisy." In fact, it did not. I may be mistaken, but I really don't think the "N word" was ever used in "Driving Miss Daisy." But the initially segregated society and the evolving attitudes about race were clear to see without it.

Miss Daisy (Jessica Tandy) was an elderly, well–to–do woman when the story began, a widow who had a black woman (Rolle) doing the cooking and cleaning for her (Rolle made something of a career of playing a servant — as TV's Florida Evans). Miss Daisy's son (Dan Aykroyd) wanted to hire someone to drive her wherever she needed to go, and he offered the job to Freeman.

Miss Daisy didn't think she needed a driver, but that was beside the point.

"You'd be working for me," Aykroyd said. "She can say anything she likes, but she can't fire you."

And, while she didn't always say so directly, she made it clear that she didn't want Freeman around and that she had made up her mind that she didn't like him. But he hung around anyway and, eventually, won her over for trips around town. That evolved into longer trips. A bond had formed.

By the end of the movie, she told Freeman he was her best friend. In the context of their history, that was quite an admission for her to make. I have long thought it was symbolic of the genuine shift in racial attitudes that I have witnessed in the South in my lifetime. As enlightened as the rest of the country likes to think of itself and as backward as the rest of the country likes to tell itself that the South is, the truth is that the South has made remarkable strides in half a century.

And "Driving Miss Daisy" was mainly about a time that preceded that half–century. Seen in that context, the inescapable conclusion is that the South has far outpaced the rest of the country. It can be fairly argued that the South had farther to go than the rest of the country — but it still doesn't receive adequate credit for what it has achieved.

I remember watching the Oscars the following spring. "Driving Miss Daisy" had nine nominations, and it seemed likely to be a big night for the movie. It was — but not as big as you might expect.

Deservedly, Tandy won Best Actress for her performance, and the movie won Best Picture (but director Bruce Beresford wasn't even nominated). It also won Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Makeup. Four wins ain't bad.

Freeman was nominated for Best Actor but lost to Daniel Day–Lewis ("My Left Foot"). Aykroyd was nominated for Best Supporting Actor but lost to Denzel Washington (for "Glory"). Bruno Rubeo and Crispian Sallis were nominated for Best Art Direction (but lost to Anton Furst and Peter Young for "Batman"). Elizabeth McBride was nominated for Best Costume Design (but lost to Phyllis Dalton for "Henry V"). Mark Warner was nominated for Best Film Editing (but lost to David Brenner and Joe Hutshing for "Born on the Fourth of July").

I suppose it's a matter of opinion whether the awards that went to others were the right choices or not. Awards are like Top 10 lists — they were made to spark heated discussions, and the Oscars have a history of rewarding some and ignoring others that most critics and moviegoers would not.

I just felt "Driving Miss Daisy" deserved more than it received.