RACIAL conflict surrounds us in the contemporary United States, where for two decades a large majority of whites has opposed the presidential choice of most peoples of color, and where racially coded stories of drugs, crime, and family breakdown dominate televised news and entertainment. Perhaps it should not be surprising that the longing for harmony and reconciliation harkens back to the past: In ``Driving Miss Daisy,'' up for a handful of Oscars when the film industry bestows its laurels tonight, a white Southern lady is humanized by the black servant who cares for her and on whom she comes to rely.
The movie is one of Hollywood's top box-office draws. Half a century ago it was ``Gone With the Wind,'' which earned Hattie McDaniel the first Oscar awarded a black performer, for best actress in a supporting role. As the 1990s open, it is ``Driving Miss Daisy,'' nominated for nine Academy Awards, including one for Morgan Freeman as best actor. The black servant is dignified and, within the limits of his or her station, independent. Who would want a submissive, slavish caretaker?
But if Scarlett O'Hara, born on a plantation, knew she could trust Mammy, Miss Daisy has to learn to rely on the man her son has hired as her chauffeur. Refusing to accept money for not working, the chauffeur who is not yet allowed to drive restores Miss Daisy's garden. Suspected of laziness, this worker insists on doing tasks he isn't even being paid for.
The chauffeur patiently drives alongside Miss Daisy until she gets in the car. Now the interracial idyll through Atlanta and the rural South begins. As on Huck Finn's raft, the black man puts up with rudeness and arbitrariness before insisting on his humanity: In the movie he declares his right to decide when he needs to pass water. But the turning point was already reached when Miss Daisy told her son to fire the chauffeur because he had stolen a can of salmon. Like the son, we are torn between the unreasonableness of the old lady's demand and the fear that her driver is guilty. What a relief when he comes through the door with a new can of salmon to replace the one he confesses he's eaten. Decades later the irascible old lady, now in a nursing home, will allow the chauffeur to put food into her mouth.
The white yearning for black nurture - from slavery to the Mammy songs of Al Jolson and Sophie Tucker, to ``Driving Miss Daisy'' - is deeply rooted in American culture. Leslie Fiedler described it in ``Come Back to the Raft, Huck Honey,'' his notorious expos'e of ``Huckleberry Finn,'' but that did not make it disappear. There is a Mammy in Miss Daisy's kitchen, but the center of nurture in the movie and in Twain's classic is male. With the independent black male an American icon of terror and violence - remember Willie Horton and Bernard Goetz? Charles Stuart did - Miss Daisy's chauffeur restores our basic trust. The interracial romance between this odd couple brings together not sexual man and woman but, and the roles keep shifting, mother and child.
The backdrop of Southern pastoral, as Miss Daisy is driven from Atlanta to Mobile, evokes the plantation movies of 50 years ago. But we are now in the new South, not the old, and Miss Daisy's family has prospered in textile manufacture. Just as no industrial waste defiles the countryside, however, so the shot of the factory interior displays machines without workers. Work is domestic and racial in this movie, not industrial and class-based. Hollywood has come a long way since filming, in ``Norma Rae,'' about the unionization of a Southern textile mill.
The union organizer was Jewish in ``Norma Rae''; now it is the Southern mill owner. ``Driving Miss Daisy'' reestablishes the bond between black and Jew, sundered since black power. This interracial alliance evokes, not ``Gone With the Wind,'' but rather the first talking picture, the story of Jewish upward mobility through putting on blackface, Al Jolson's ``The Jazz Singer.''
Miss Daisy makes fun of her daughter-in-law's (Jewish) vulgarity (including her nose) and of her efforts to become gentile. But there is nothing at all Jewish about Miss Daisy herself, as Hollywood recurs to another ancient practice and gives Jewish parts to ethnic-free actors. This movie can celebrate Jewishness and assimilation at the same time, since the real ethnic difference remains that between black and white. In this nostalgic fantasy about rapprochement between blacks and Jews, the Jews who assimilate retain the loyalty of blacks.
This movie offers no access to the chauffeur's interior, and Morgan Freeman uses that omission to distance his character from Miss Daisy's demands; when she calls him her best friend, his ``Yes'm'' might suggest some other assessment of their relation. But why must Morgan Freeman, who projects such dignity, be clothed in the costume of a chauffeur? Hattie McDaniel said she would rather play a maid than be one. Now that few whites can afford the luxury of black maids and drivers, can't we also dispense with our desire to watch African-Americans play the role?