‘The Maids’ Now Have Their Say
By MANOHLA DARGIS
Published: August 9, 2011
There’s a scene in “The Help,” the new movie based on Kathryn Stockett’s novel, that cracks open the early-’60s world of strained smiles and gentility that rarely leaps out of this big, ole slab of honey-glazed hokum. It’s after hours, and Aibileen, a maid played with determined grace by Viola Davis, is going home. Suddenly the bus stops, and a white man orders the black passengers off, explaining that a black man has been shot — except that he doesn’t say black, Negro or colored. In a pool of dreadful night, Aibileen and a young man trade goodbyes and rush off. And then this sturdy, frightened woman starts running as if her life were in danger, because it’s Mississippi, and it is.
When she gets to safety, Aibileen learns that the man who has been shot is Medgar Evers, the civil rights activist who was gunned down in Jackson, Miss., on June 12, 1963, in front of his home. His wife and three young children, who were trained to lie on the floor in case of gunfire, found him, and Evers died shortly afterward. Hours before, President John F. Kennedy, spurred on by different national events, including the demonstrations in Birmingham led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., had delivered his landmark speechabout civil rights. He said we were facing a “moral crisis as a country and a people” and soon introduced legislation that would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the same year “The Help” rises to its teary, insistently uplifting end.
If the movie’s director, Tate Taylor, had his way, your tear ducts would be sucked dry by that big finish, emptied out by a pileup of calamities that include a painful romantic breakup, the devastations of cancer and the mighty wailing of an emotionally abandoned toddler. And that’s just what’s ailing the white folks. The black characters have it tough too, no question, and Mr. Taylor includes enough scenes of Aibileen and her best friend, Minny...