"The Help": Bold, black and bidding for Oscar glory

Tue Feb 21, 2012 4:07pm EST
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By Jill Serjeant

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Viola Davis knew she had big shoes to fill when she agreed to play the role of a lowly black maid to a rich white family in 1960s Mississippi in "The Help".

They included those of her mother, her late grandmother and thousands of African-American women who were maids themselves, many of whom would rather forget those years. Although Davis is now neck-and-neck with Meryl Streep for the best actress Oscar, she says her mother has yet to see "The Help."

"It's painful. You have a whole generation of women who don't want to be reminded of the past," Davis, 46, said.

Therein lies the paradox at the heart of "The Help" and its chances for Oscars. It was a surprise summer box-office hit that exposed old, but not forgotten, racial divides in the United States. Its popularity could cause Oscar voters to choose it as the year's best movie, but the ugly history it replays might make them look the other way and cast a ballot for another nominee, especially frontrunner romance, "The Artist."

Based on the 2009 best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett, "The Help" is the tale of a young white woman in Jackson, Mississippi who in 1963 asks African-American maids to help her write a book about their experiences working for white families in the early stages of the civil rights movement.

Among movie fans, "The Help" has shown the greatest popular appeal of the nine films vying for best movie. With a $206 million global box office - most of it from North America - and supported by fans of more than 10 million books sold worldwide, "The Help" was one of the top 15 movies of 2011.

Myrlie Evers-Williams, a former chair of the NAACP whose civil rights activist husband Medgar Evers was murdered in 1963 in Mississippi by a white supremacist, called it the "most outstanding and socially relevant" movie of 2011.

In Hollywood, it has brought a slew of acting awards for its star, Davis, and supporting actress Octavia Spencer, who plays a sassy maid with an unusual method for vengeance through cooking. It has four Oscar nominations, including best motion picture.   Continued...

Actress Viola Davis poses with the Image Award she won as best actress in a motion picture for her role in "The Help" at the 43rd NAACP Image Awards in Los Angeles, California February 17, 2012. REUTERS/Fred Prouser