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(Credit: Warner Bros.)

Film

The controversy surrounding 'Driving Miss Daisy'

Time hasn’t always been kind to the iconic Academy Awards, with the established American awards show often celebrating films that tell a pertinent cultural story with ‘powerful’ emotional gusto. Simply cast your mind back to the limp social commentary of Paul Haggis’ Crash, or even the musical crime drama Chicago to see such controversies. However, you’ll have to think back even further to the 1980s to discover one of the most disputed Best Picture winners of all time. 

Seen as a landmark moment in cinema history upon its release in 1989, Driving Miss Daisy was a socially conscious comment on the fight for American civil rights throughout the 20th century. Starring Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy, the film follows Freeman as a chauffeur to an old Jewish woman (Tandy) who develop a strong relationship after years of back-and-forth bickering. 

Recognised as a strong awards contender upon its release, Driving Miss Daisy was ultimately nominated for nine Academy Awards in total, being put into a pool with the likes of the Vietnam war classic Born on the Fourth of July and My Left Foot starring Daniel Day-Lewis in a staggering lead performance. Though the film was clearly destined for success as a pertinent story about race relations, there was a significant film missing from the ranks of Best Picture that addressed such pertinent issues far better; Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.

Still recognised to this day as Spike Lee’s magnum opus, Do the Right Thing is a rousing comedy-drama following a community that reaches boiling point on the hottest day of the year in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. With an ensemble cast that includes Samuel L. Jackson, Rosie Perez, Danny Aiello, Giancarlo Esposito and John Turturro, Do the Right Thing remains a valuable historical document to this very day, telling of the hate and bigotry that smouldered in the late 1980s. 

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In comparison Driving Miss Daisy, a film that discussed a similar subject but attacked its story with limp conviction, the movie managed to become more accessible than Spike Lee’s enraged drama. Whilst Do the Right Thing was left out of the running for Best Picture, Driving Miss Daisy went on to take the crown, a decision in the contemporary landscape of cinema that is quite simply wrong. 

Spike Lee wasn’t the only victim to Bruce Beresford’s Oscar-winning success, with the cast and crew of the powerful drama My Left Foot also feeling hard done by, with their extraordinary true story of painter Christy Brown certainly being more inspiring than the ultimate recipient of Best Picture. Less dramatically impactful than its competitors and armed with a more unconvincing control over its sensitive subject matter, the film has since been criticised for its handling of racist issues. 

Directed by Bruce Beresford, and written by Alfred Uhry, two American white filmmakers, Driving Miss Daisy wasn’t exactly charged with the same vigour, anger and pertinence of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, who rightly told the Daily Beast in 2015, “Nobody’s talking about motherfuckin’ Driving Miss Daisy”.

Whilst Beresford’s film slipped into the realm of successful Oscar-bait, Lee’s Do the Right Thing has become a cult classic, with the director adding: “That film is not being taught in film schools all across the world like Do the Right Thing is. Nobody’s discussing Driving Miss motherfuckin’ Daisy”. 

32 years after the release of the Oscar-winning film, Driving Miss Daisy simply stands as a rather embarrassing example of a self-congratulatory tick box for the American Academy, slipping the chance of making history for Spike Lee’s classic film.