Comparisons between Bruce Beresford’s Driving Miss Daisy (1989) and his new movie Mr Church are inevitable and unwise. There are similarities: both films are about black men serving white women in delicate health. Driving Miss Daisy traces the friendship that emerges out of the daily interactions between a crusty widow and her driver. In Mr Church, a black cook becomes a source of literal and spiritual nourishment for a cancer-afflicted single woman and her precocious daughter. Both the black characters know their place in their white-dominated worlds, and they never put forth a wrong step.
Without the sharp writing, subtle characterisation and gentle manners that mark the older film, Mr Church adds up to little more than a showcase for leading man Eddie Murphy’s ability to button up his characteristic mania and portray a reclusive gentleman with skeletons in his closet. Despite the whiff of awards bait, Murphy, one of America’s comic treasures, delivers a refined and dignified performance, but his character remains a phantasmagorical presence from the first frame to the last.
The 104-minute movie is perilously told from the point of view of Charlotte, who reacts with horror when she wakes up one morning to find Mr Church (he is always called only that) at work. “There’s a black man in our kitchen cooking eggs,” she tells her sickly mother Marie (Natascha McElhone). Church turns out to be quite the stereotype buster – he is courteous, wise, well-read, preternaturally calm and immensely private, retreating into the shadows of the night once his work is done. And he is a great cook, of course, which melts Charlotte’s opposition.
Church has been hired to work for Marie by her former lover, and he cares for her throughout her illness, all the way till Charlotte (Britt Roberston) is a teenager and getting ready for adult life. The improbable and unlikely bond between Charlotte and Church continues after Marie’s death, but the screenplay never opens up to reveal the mystery behind Church’s early enigmatic statement to the young Charlotte – the delicious grits he prepares have secrets mixed into the ingredients.
Susan McMartin’s screenplay, which is based on real events, is about as curious about Church’s real self as Charlotte. Although she lives in the same town as Church, Charlotte makes only half-hearted attempts to find out who he really is and what he does after work. Race is a non-issue in this movie, and Church’s true identity, which will be obvious even to non-alert viewers, is apparently far too subversive for the movie to handle. “Even his weeping was graceful,” Charlotte admiringly says about Church, but the movie’s worshipful gaze demands a level of submission that is impossible to make.