After backing her car over a hedge into the neighbor's yard in the tamest car accident scene on celluloid (where's Michael Bay to throw in some explosions when you need 'em?), 72-year-old Miss Daisy Werthan, a Real Widow of Atlanta, finds herself without a car. Her son, Boolie, who has no desire to see the citizens of Atlanta diving away from his mom's Chrysler screaming down the street like a stray missile, buys her a new car and hires her a driver: a black man named Hoke Colburn.
Miss Daisy doesn't like him.
To be fair, she doesn't seem to like anyone. But she's extra salty toward Hoke, snapping at him over the most innocuous offenses, like talking to her maid, Idella, or dusting her lightbulbs.
No, that isn't a euphemism.
She won't let him drive her anywhere, not even to the Piggly Wiggly. When Daisy needs groceries at the Piggly Wiggly, she takes the trolley to the Piggly Wiggly, and carries her shopping bags all the way home from the Piggly Wiggly. We just like saying "Piggly Wiggly."
One day, while Miss Daisy walks to the Piggly Wiggly, Hoke follows her in the car. She relents, getting into the backseat and allowing him to drive her to the Piggly Wiggly. (Okay, we'll stop saying Piggly Wiggly now.) Her stubborn façade is beginning to crack. They hit a few detours, like when Miss Daisy accuses Hoke of stealing a can of salmon. But there's nothing fishy about it. He ate it, and he replaces it. She's ashamed. From then on, they're on the road to friendship despite the differences in their social class.
Over the years, Daisy and her dusty bulbs warm to Hoke. She helps the illiterate man get hooked on phonics, and he drives her to a birthday party all the way down yonder in Mobile, Alabama. Their road trip crosses a few speed bumps. First, they're briefly stopped by racist cops in Alabama. Then, almost late to Daisy's brother's party, she won't let Hoke stop to "make water." Tired of being treated as less than human, he pulls the car over and heads into the woods. She's ashamed again. Maybe she's starting to understand that he isn't just her servant, but he's a person too?
They continue to live their separate-but-not-quite-equal lives. Idella dies and they attend her funeral service. Boolie gives Hoke a raise. Hoke attempts to identify with Daisy when her Jewish temple is bombed, but she still thinks that the attack on her temple and the story he tells—about his childhood friend's father being lynched—are two totally different things.
Daisy thinks she's enlightened and unprejudiced. She attends a speech by Martin Luther King, Jr., and insults Hoke when she sort-of asks if he wants to go on the way there. Offended, he tells her that she may "talk about things changing, [but] they ain't changed all that much." When Dr. King's speech rails against good people who sit back and allow blacks to be mistreated, Daisy feels—you guessed it—ashamed.
Soon, things do change for Daisy. She begins a descent into dementia, thinking she's a schoolteacher again. After Hoke comforts her, she takes his hand and tells him that he's her best friend. She's eventually put in an old folks' home, where Hoke visits her a couple years later with Boolie.
At the home, Hoke sits with Daisy and feeds her a slice of pumpkin pie. She seems happy to be in the company of her BFF, and she fondly remembers the time when he first drove her in the red Hudson automobile.