Driving Miss Daisy: Remembering the Real-Life ‘Hokes’

Some people saw Driving Miss Daisy, the movie, as an affirmation of black stereotypes. But Hoke, the chauffeur played by Morgan Freeman and now by James Earl Jones on Broadway, represents a generation of black men who worked hard so their children and grandchildren wouldn't have to.

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In writing Miss Daisy, this was what Uhry was trying to capture: how the Big Daddys of the South navigated their two worlds. He knew firsthand of the intricate, sometimes intergenerational, relationships between many white employers and black employees — people he considered to be members of extended families. That is not to say, of course, that they were on equal footing. Miss Daisy always insists on being treated as a Southern lady — and trying to keep Hoke in a subservient place — but near the end, she says to him, “Hoke, you’re my best friend.” Uhry said that the Hoke character in Miss Daisy is based on a black man who long worked for his family and was the closest thing to a grandfather he ever had. “He’s wise. He’s deeply intelligent. He’s deeply intuitive and, as we say in the South, he knows how to do.”

That doesn’t mean that the Uhrys of the South knew the Hokes of the South nearly as well as the blacks who cooked, cleaned, cared for their children and drove for them knew them. In Miss Daisy, there are only hints of the life Hoke had when he was not at work. His daughter is married to a Pullman porter and does quite a bit of travel, something Hoke doesn’t cotton to. His granddaughter becomes a biologist at Spelman.

Uhry’s family was more class conscious than Jewish conscious; their roots in Atlanta went back to the antebellum period, but they always knew they were Jewish rather than regular white folks in the eyes of many. He remembers going to an Atlanta department store with his mother and seeing the white and colored water-fountain signs.  He drank from the colored fountain. “She said, ‘You’re not supposed to do that,’ and I said, ‘Why?’ ” She laughed, and he continued to drink from the “wrong” fountain. He recalled that the synagogue his family attended was bombed, not because it was a hotbed of black liberation but because it was a Jewish institution.

Jones, whose voice is memorable as Darth Vader’s in Star Wars and from countless other voiceovers, is a well-known stutterer who found his voice through performing, which he said allows one to “tap into various aspects of yourself that you might not have had a chance to explore.” When one of the participants in the evening chat with theater enthusiasts asked last month, “If you were to select one word to describe your voice, what would it be?” he quietly replied: “Mine.”  With, of course, a whole lot of Uhrys and Hokes and Big Daddys in the mix.

E.R. Shipp is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and frequent contributor to The Root.

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