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film Why Do the Oscars Keep Falling for Racial Reconciliation Fantasies?

In many Oscar bait movies, interracial friendships come with a paycheck, and follow the white character’s journey to enlightenment.

In 1990, “Driving Miss Daisy” won the Oscar for best picture. Morgan Freeman, right, with Jessica Tandy and Ray McKinnon.,Warner Brothers

“Driving Miss Daisy” is the sort of movie you know before you see it. The whole thing is right there in the poster. White Jessica Tandy is giving black Morgan Freeman a stern look, and he looks amused by her sternness. They’re framed in a rearview mirror, which occupies only about 20 percent of the space. You can make out his chauffeur’s cap and that she’s in the back seat. The rest is three actors’ names, a tag line, a title, tiny credits, and white space.

That rearview-mirror image isn’t a still from the movie but a warmly painted rendering of one, this vague nuzzling of Norman Rockwell Americana. And its warmth evokes a very particular past. If you’ve ever seen the packaging for Cream of Wheat or a certain brand of rice, if you’ve even seen some Shirley Temple movies, you knew how Miss Daisy would be driven: gladly.

As movie posters go, it’s ingeniously concise. But whoever designed it knew the concision was possible because we’d know the shorthand of an eternal racial dynamic. I got off the subway last month and saw a billboard of black Kevin Hart riding on the back of white Bryan Cranston’s motorized wheelchair. They’re both ecstatic. And maybe they’re obligated to be. Their movie is called “The Upside.” A few months before that, I was out getting a coffee when I saw a long, sexy billboard of white Viggo Mortensen driving black Mahershala Ali in a minty blue car for a movie called “Green Book". Not knowing what these movies were “about” didn’t mean it wasn’t clear what they were about. They symbolize a style of American storytelling in which the wheels of interracial friendship are greased by employment, in which prolonged exposure to the black half of the duo enhances the humanity of his white, frequently racist counterpart. All the optimism of racial progress — from desegregation to integration to equality to something like true companionship — is stipulated by terms of service. Thirty years separate “Driving Miss Daisy” from these two new films, but how much time has passed, really? The bond in all three is conditionally transactional, possible only if it’s mediated by money. “The Upside” has the rich, quadriplegic author Phillip Lacasse (Cranston) hire an ex-con named Dell Scott (Hart) to be his “life auxiliary.” “Green Book” reverses the races so that some white muscle (Mortensen) drives the black pianist Don Shirley (Ali) to gigs throughout the Deep South in the 1960s. It’s “The Upside Down.”

These pay-for-playmate transactions are a modern pastime, different from an entire history of popular culture that simply required black actors to serve white stars without even the illusion of friendship. It was really only possible in a post-integration America, possible after Sidney Poitier made black stardom loosely feasible for the white studios, possible after the moral and legal adjustments won during the civil rights movements, possible after the political recriminations of the black power and blaxploitation eras let black people regularly frolic among themselves for the first time since the invention of the Hollywood movie. Possible, basically, only in the 1980s, after the movements had more or less subsided and capitalism and jokey white paternalism ran wild.

On television in this era, rich white sitcom families vacuumed up little black boys, on “Diff’rent Strokes,” on “Webster.” On “Diff’rent Strokes,” the adopted boys are the orphaned Harlem sons of Phillip Drummond’s maid. Not only was money supposed to lubricate racial integration; it was perhaps supposed to mitigate a history of keeping black people apart and oppressed.

The sitcoms weren’t officially social experiments, but they were light advertisements for the civilizing (and alienating) benefits of white wealth on black life. The plot of “Trading Places,” from 1983, actually was an experiment, a pungent, complicated one, in which conniving white moneybags install a broke and hustling Eddie Murphy in disgraced Dan Aykroyd’s banking job. The scheme creates an accidental friendship between the duped pair and they both wind up rich.

But that Daddy Warbucks paternalism was how, in 1982, the owner of the country’s most ferocious comedic imagination — Richard Pryor — went from desperate janitor to live-in amusement for the bratty son of a rotten businessman (Jackie Gleason). You have to respect the bluntness of that one. The movie was called “The Toy,” and it’s simultaneously dumb, wild and appalling. I was younger than its little white protagonist (he’s “Master” Eric Bates) when I saw it, but I can still remember the look of embarrassed panic on Pryor’s face while he’s trapped in something called the Wonder Wheel. It’s a look that never quite goes away as he’s made to dress in drag, navigate the Ku Klux Klan and make Gleason feel good about his racism and terrible parenting.

These were relationships that continued the rules of the past, one in which Poitier was frequently hired to turn bigots into buddies. The rules didn’t need to be disguised by yesterday. These arrangements could flourish in the present. So maybe that was the alarming appeal of “Driving Miss Daisy.” It went there. It went back there. And people went for it. The movie came out at the end of 1989, won four Oscars (best picture, actress, adapted screenplay, makeup), got besotted reviews and made a pile of money. Why wasn’t a mystery.

Any time a white person comes anywhere close to the rescue of a black person the academy is primed to say, “Good for you!,” whether it’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Mississippi Burning,” “The Blind Side,” or “The Help.” The year “Driving Miss Daisy” won those Oscars, Morgan Freeman also had a supporting role in a drama (“Glory”) that placed a white Union colonel at its center and was very much in the mix that night. (Denzel Washington won his first Oscar for playing a slave-turned-Union soldier in that movie.) And Spike Lee lost the original screenplay award for “Do the Right Thing,” his masterpiece about a boiled-over pot of racial animus in Brooklyn. I was 14 then, and the political incongruity that night was impossible not to feel. “Driving Miss Daisy” and “Glory” were set in the past and the people who loved them seemed stuck there. The giddy reception for “Miss Daisy” seemed earnest. But Lee’s movie dramatized a starker truth — we couldn’t all just get along.

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For what it’s worth, Lee is now up for more Oscars. His film “BlacKkKlansman” has six nominations. Given the five for “Green Book,” basically so is “Driving Miss Daisy.” Which is to say that 2019 might just be 1990 all over again. And yet viewed separately from the cold shower of “Do the Right Thing,” “Driving Miss Daisy” does operate with more finesse, elegance and awareness than my teenage self wanted to see. It’s still not the best movie of 1989. But it does know the southern caste system and the premium that system placed on propriety.

The movie turns the 25-year relationship between Daisy, an elderly Jewish white widow from Atlanta, and Hoke, her elderly, widowed black driver, into both this delicate, modest, tasteful thing — a love letter, a corsage — and something amusingly perverse. Proud old prejudiced Daisy says she doesn’t want to be driven anywhere. But doesn’t she? Hoke treats her pride like a costume. He stalks her with her own new car until she succumbs and lets him drive her to the market. What passes between them feels weirdly kinky: southern-etiquette S&M.

Bruce Beresford directed the movie and Alfred Uhry based it on his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which he said was inspired by his grandmother and her chauffeur, and it does powder over the era’s upheavals, uprisings and blowups. But it doesn’t sugarcoat the history fueling the regional and national climes, either. Daisy’s fortune comes from cotton, and Hoke, with ruthless affability, keeps reminding her that she’s rich. When she says things are a-changing, he tells her not that much.

Platonic love blossoms, obviously. But the movie’s one emotional gaffe would seem to come near the end when Daisy grabs Hoke’s hand and tells him so. “You’re my best friend,” she creaks. But her admission arises not from one of their little S&M drives but after a bout of dementia. And in a wide shot, he stands above her, a little stooped, halfway in, halfway out, moved yet confused. And in his posture resides an entire history of national racial awkwardness: He has to mind his composure even as she’s losing her mind.

One headache with these movies, even one as well done as “Driving Miss Daisy,” is that they romanticize their workplaces and treat their black characters as the ideal crowbar for closed white minds and insulated lives.

Who knows why, in “The Upside,” Phillip picks the uncouth, underqualified Dell to drive him around, change his catheter and share his palatial apartment. But by the time the movie’s over, they’re paragliding together to Aretha Franklin. We’re told that this is based on a true story. It’s not. It’s a remake of a far more nauseating French megahit — “Les Intouchables” — and that claimed to be based on a true story. “The Upside” seems based on one of those paternalistic ’80s movies, “Disorderlies,” the one where the Fat Boys wheel an ailing Ralph Bellamy around his mansion.

Phillip’s largess and tolerance take Dell from opera-phobic to opera-curious to opera queen, leading to Dell’s being able to afford to transport his ex and their son out of the projects, and permitting Dell to take his boss’s luxury cars for a spin whether or not he’s riding shotgun. And Dell provides entertainment (and drugs) that ease Phillip’s sense of isolation and self-consciousness. But this is also a movie that needs Dell to steal one of Phillip’s antique first-editions as a surprise gift to his estranged son, and not a copy of some Judith Krantz or Sidney Sheldon novel, either. He swipes “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (and to reach it, his hand has to skip past a few Horatio Alger books, too). Most of these black-white-friendship adventures were foretold by Mark Twain. Somebody is white Huck and somebody else is his amusingly dim black sidekick, Jim. This movie is just a little more flagrant about it.

There’s a way of looking at the role reversal in “Green Book” as an upgrade. Through his record company, Don hires a white nightclub bouncer named Tony Vallelonga. (Most people call him Tony Lip.) We don’t meet Don for about 15 minutes, because the movie needs us to know that Tony is a sweet, Eye-talian tough guy who also throws out perfectly good glassware because his wife let black repairmen drink from it.

By this point, you might have heard about the fried chicken scene in “Green Book.” It comes early in their road trip. Tony is shocked to discover that Don has never had fried chicken. He also appears never to have seen anybody eat fried chicken, either. (“What do we do about the bones?”) So, with all the greasy alacrity and exuberant crassness that Mortensen can conjure, Tony demonstrates how to eat it while driving. As comedy, it’s masterful — there’s tension, irony and, when the car stops and reverses to retrieve some litter, a punch line that brings down the house. But the comedy works only if the black, classical-pop fusion pianist is from outer space (and not in a Sun Ra sort of way). You’re meant to laugh because how could this racist be better at being black than this black man who’s supposed to be better than him?

The movie Peter Farrelly directed and wrote, with Brian Currie and Tony’s son Nick, is suspiciously like “Driving Miss Daisy,” but same-sex, with Don as Daisy and Tony as Hoke. Indeed, “Miss Daisy” features a fried chicken scene, too, a delicate one, in which Hoke tells her the flame is too high on the skillet and she waves him off. Once he’s left the kitchen, she furtively, begrudgingly adjusts the burner. It’s like Farrelly watched that scene and thought it needed a stick of cartoon dynamite.

Before they head out, a white character from Don’s record company gives Tony a listing of black-friendly places to house Don: The Green Book. The idea for “The Negro Motorist Green Book” belongs to Victor Hugo Green, a postal worker, who introduced it in 1936. It guided black road trippers to stress-free gas, food and lodging in the segregated South. The story of its invention, distribution and updating is an amusing, invigorating, poignant and suspenseful story of an astonishing social network, and warrants a movie in itself. In the meantime, what does Tony need a Green Book for? He is the Green Book.

The movie’s tagline is “based on a true friendship.” But the transactional nature of it makes the friendship seem less true than sponsored. So what does the money do, exactly? The white characters — the biological ones and somebody supposedly not black enough, like fictional Don — are lonely people in these pay-a-pal movies. The money is ostensibly for legitimate assistance, but it also seems to paper over all that’s potentially fraught about race. The relationship is entirely conscripted as service and bound by capitalism and the fantastically presumptive leap is, The money doesn’t matter because I like working for you. And if you’re the racist in the relationship: I can’t be horrible because we’re friends now. That’s why the hug Sandra Bullock gives Yomi Perry, the actor playing her maid, Maria, at the end of “Crash,” remains the single most disturbing gesture of its kind. It’s not friendship. Friendship is mutual. That hug is cannibalism.

Money buys Don a chauffeur and, apparently, an education in black folkways and culture. (Little Richard? He’s never heard him play.) Shirley’s real-life family has objected to the portrait. Their complaints include that he was estranged from neither black people nor blackness. Even without that thumbs-down, you can sense what a particularly perverse fantasy this is: that absolution resides in a neutered black man needing a white guy not only to protect and serve him, but to love him, too. Even if that guy and his Italian-American family and mob associates refer to Don and other black people as eggplant and coal. In the movie’s estimation, their racism is preferable to its nasty, blunter southern cousin because their racism is often spoken in Italian. And, hey, at least Tony never asks Don to eat his fancy dinner in a supply closet.

Mahershala Ali is acting Shirley’s isolation and glumness, but the movie determines that dining with racists is better than dining alone. The money buys Don relative safety, friendship, transportation and a walking-talking black college. What the money can’t buy him is more of the plot in his own movie. It can’t allow him to bask in his own unique, uniquely dreamy artistry. It can’t free him from a movie that sits him where Miss Daisy sat, yet treats him worse than Hoke. He’s a literal passenger on this white man’s trip. Tony learns he really likes black people. And thanks to Tony, now so does Don.

Lately, the black version of these interracial relationships tends to head in the opposite direction. In the black version, for one thing, they’re not about money or a job but about the actual emotional, psychological work of being black among white people. Here, the proximity to whiteness is toxic, a danger, a threat. That’s the thrust of Jeremy O. Harris’s stage drama “Slave Play,” in which the traumatic legacy of plantation life pollutes the black half of the show’s interracial relationships. That’s a particularly explicit, ingenious example. But scarcely any of the work I’ve seen in the last year by black artists — not Jackie Sibblies Drury’s equally audacious play “Fairview,” not Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You,” not “Blindspotting,” which Daveed Diggs co-wrote and stars in, not Barry Jenkins’s “If Beale Street Could Talk” or Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” — emphasizes the smoothness and joys of interracial friendship and certainly not through employment. The health of these connections is iffy, at best.

In 1989, Lee was pretty much on his own as a voice of black racial reality. His rankled pragmatism now has company and, at the Academy Awards, it’s also got stiff competition. He helped plant the seeds for an environment in which black artists can look askance at race. But a lot of us still need the sense of fantastical racial contentment that movies like “The Upside” and “Green Book” are slinging. I’ve seen “Green Book” with paying audiences, and it cracks people up the way any of Farrelly’s comedies do. The kind of closure it offers is like a drug that Lee’s never dealt. The Charlottesville-riot footage that he includes as an epilogue in “BlacKkKlansman” might bury the loose, essentially comedic movie it’s attached to in furious lava. Lee knows the past too well to ever let the present off the hook. The volcanoes in this country have never been dormant.

The academy’s embrace of Lee at this stage of his career (this is his first best director nomination) suggests that it’s come around to what rankles him. Of course, “BlacKkKlansman” is taking on the unmistakable villainy of the KKK in the 1970s. But what put Lee on the map 30 years ago was his fearlessness about calling out the universal casual bigotry of the moment, like Daisy’s and Tony’s. It’s hot as hell in “Do the Right Thing,” and in the heat, almost everybody has a problem with who somebody is. The pizzeria owned by Sal (Danny Aiello) comes to resemble a house of hate. Eventually Sal’s delivery guy, Mookie (played by Lee), incites a melee by hurling a trash can through the store window. He’d already endured a conversation with Pino (John Turturro), Sal’s racist son, in which he tells Mookie that famous black people are “more than black.”

Closure is impossible because the blood is too bad, too historically American. Lee had conjured a social environment that’s the opposite of what “The Upside,” “Green Book,” and “Driving Miss Daisy” believe. In one of the very last scenes, after Sal’s place is destroyed, Mookie still demands to be paid. To this day, Sal’s tossing balled-up bills at Mookie, one by one, shocks me. He’s mortally offended. Mookie’s unmoved. They’re at a harsh, anti-romantic impasse. We’d all been reared on racial-reconciliation fantasies. Why can’t Mookie and Sal be friends? The answer’s too long and too raw. Sal can pay Mookie to deliver pizzas ‘til kingdom come. But he could never pay him enough to be his friend.

Wesley Morris is a critic-at-large for The New York Times. Previous to The Times, Mr. Morris worked at Grantland as a staff writer and the Sportstorialist columnist and cohost of “Do You Like Prince Movies?” He was a film critic at The Boston Globe from 2002 to 2013, and before that at The San Francisco Chronicle and The San Francisco Examiner. Mr. Morris was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his criticism at the Boston Globe in 2012 and, while at Grantland, was a National Magazine Award finalist for Columns and Commentary in 2015. He was born in Philadelphia and received a bachelor’s degree from Yale University for film studies. Some of his spare times is spent making piecrusts, complaining about real estate development and teaching writing to high school students in Bushwick.