Monday, September 26, 2016

Driving Through the Past

Since literature lives in an eternal and ever-expanding present, it is logical that a writer should take up residence there, among his fellow occupiers of the present. A literary intelligence reacting to his own age has always been one of the great pleasures of art.

But exploring past lives inspires great works of literature as well, whether it is Tolstoy's breathing life into an heroic era of the Russian past just prior to his birth or Flaubert reaching all the way back to the fall of Carthage, holding a mirror up to history can be just as timely and telling as any contemporary account impacting directly on our lives.

These musings have been prompted by an intentionally offhanded dismissal by a prominent American critic of what I believe is a great American film. Reviewing Bruce Beresford's (or Eddie Murphy's) new film Mr. Church in The New Yorker, Richard Brody, who calls the film "repugnant" for quite unconvincing reasons, attacks Beresford in the following terms:

'... it was directed by Bruce Beresford, whose only excuse is that he was (ir)responsible for making "Driving Miss Daisy," in 1989, and his ideas about race are stuck in 1948.'

As often occurs with one of Brody's pieces, I'm not at all sure where he's coming from. He speaks from a view of film - of American film especially - that is foriegn to mine. He finds film masters and masterpieces in the unlikeliest places. Nothing could possibly illustrate this better than what Brody writes a few paragraphs later about Jerry Lewis (surely the most repugnant American comic of the 20th Century's second half):

'Lewis may have been despised and reviled by sniffy intellectuals [what a giveaway!] in the United States, but, well, he always had Paris. As the director and star of his own films, he was recognized as the genius he is by the people who understood more about the art of movies than anyone in the world, France's cinephilic critics and filmmakers.'

The (French) joke, I'm afraid, is on Richard Brody - and on all Americans. The America-hating French see Jerry Lewis as the quintessential American buffoon, who can't even walk straight and is always bumbling and crashing into things.

But Brody's singling out Bruce Beresford, who is Australian, and Driving Miss Daisy for ridicule caught me off-guard. As a longtime fan and follower of the now 76-year-old filmmaker, I followed the online link to Brody's piece in anticipation of discovering what Beresford has been up to lately, surprised that he's been up to anything. Reading as Brody lowered his ax, in a piece dedicated to the largely unsung talents of Eddie Murphy, made me wonder if he resented Beresford precisely for having the audacity of showing Americans how to make great films like Tender Mercies and, yes, Driving Miss Daisy.

Daisy was adapted by Alfred Uhry from his own award-winning play (he won an Oscar for it, but Big Deal). Despite the attraction of its stars (even though Morgan Freeman wasn't quite there yet), the film almost didn't get made. It was the last minute casting of Dan Ackroyd as Miss Daisy's son Boolie that finally got the project rolling. But, interestingly, it was the first Best Picture Oscar winner since 1932's Grand Hotel that didn't give a nomination to its director. As anyone who knows anything about filmmaking can tell you, it was Bruce Beresford who made Miss Daisy as beautiful as it is. His directorial choices, often unnoticeable touches, are all over the film and propel it into art.

It was met with almost unanimous praise, except for a specific quarter: some African-American viewers objected strongly and stridently to Morgan Freeman's performance as Hoke, Miss Daisy's driver. They bristled at the existence, onscreen or off, of such a fawning, subservient "Uncle Tom," bowing and scraping before his white employers, not showing the slightest resistance to the injustices of the white world around him, but lying down and taking it like, well, like an obedient slave.

When I first heard these objections, I was surprised at the denial of Hoke's detractors, who could neither believe that any such man existed nor accept his fictional existence. In his piece on Mr. Church, Brody ridicules the racism behind the character whom Spike Lee called the "Magic Negro," who conforms to white fantasies about the comportment of black men, even down to what must be their vitiated, blighted inner lives.

I haven't read what Morgan Freeman had to say, if anything, about these objections to his performance, but it seems to me that his accomplishment as an actor, both in the stage role and on film - always in the service of Alfred Uhry's play - owed as much to archaeology as aesthetics. The model for the character of Hoke didn't exist by the 1980s, but Freeman, who had perhaps met his type, resurrected him for the play. It may not be in keeping with our reformed, post-Civil Rights view of African-Americans, but it is still historically valid. It challenges our conventional wisdom that it was only the white man that had to evolve and that the black man never changed as the world changed around him. Hoke's acceptance, however grudgingly, of the circumstances of his bondage, of his relationship with the imperious Miss Daisy, outraged some viewers. They wanted to see a fully realized black man, fully emancipated even before the emancipation was a social reality. They refused to accept the past on its own, albeit terrible, terms.

Saying that Driving Miss Daisy is racist is like saying Open City is fascist. Evidently, the only way one can make a film concerning race relations in the America of the 1940s and '50s (and avoid the charge of racism) is to look at everything monochromatically, to make all white people cold and cruel (and stupid) and all black people warm and feeling (and ever so wise). In other words, a work of propaganda.

For the purposes of his film, Bruce Beresford's "ideas about race" ran the gamut of his characters' lives. The relationship of Hoke and Miss Daisy didn't folow the trajectory of history but that of human compassion and love. So that, by the time we see them together in Miss Daisy's nursing home, she a half-demented old white woman and he a retired old black man sharing a piece of pumpkin pie and each other's company, after the upheavals that had overtaken the South in the intervening twenty-odd years, their closeness and sympathy is recognizable and, for me anyway, immensely moving - even as we glimpse an image of Miss Daisy's old Hudson driving into the distance.

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