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Despite Criticism, Oscar-Nominee Prides ‘The Help’

Filed by KOSU News in US News.
August 10, 2011

The movie The Help, based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Kathryn Stockett, hits theaters nationwide today.

The story takes place in Civil Rights-era Mississippi, where a group of African-Americans share the hideous truth behind their jobs as domestic workers.

Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (played by Emma Stone), Minny Jackson (played by Octavia Spencer), and Aibileen Clark (played by Viola Davis) become unlikely friends who launch a risky, clandestine writing project to defy the era’s social norms.

The Character Aibileen

In an interview with NPR’s Allison Keyes, actress Viola Davis said she was attracted to the film because of the richness of the characters and their relationships.

“I saw human beings behind the uniforms — fully explored human beings. And I saw them go on a journey. And I saw these seemingly ordinary women rise to extraordinarily heroic heights,” she said.

The character Aibileen is 53 years old, and has raised 17 children. Deciding to play Aibileen wasn’t easy for Davis, she admitted, because the image of the maid carries heavy stigma in the African-American community.

And yet, Davis revealed she did not see a “maid,” but Aibileen.

“I felt like, here was this woman who was emerging from this uniform, saying, ‘I’m more than just a maid.’ So it’s a hard thing to deny as an actress,” said Davis.

Audiences first see Aibileen as a woman mourning her son’s death. Her spirit has somewhat died, and she’s going through the motions. But the writing project gives her life and a dream. She develops courage to leave Mississippi.

How does Davis understand and portray such a visceral character? She said she draws upon the character’s needs. Davis also refers to personal experiences and people she knows, such as her mother.

“My mom grew up on a plantation in South Carolina, worked in the tobacco fields, worked in the cotton fields, started taking care of kids. When she was 4 years old, she had 17 brothers and sisters living on the plantation. She was the oldest of 18 children, not all of them survived.”

Davis said her mother garnered strength from those struggles.

From Stage To Big Screen

Before her Hollywood success, Davis was primarily known as a stage actress. She won a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress for her role as Rose in the 2010 Broadway production “Fences.” She also won Drama Desk Awards for her roles in “King Hedley II” and “Intimate Apparel.”

She said moving from the stage to the screen is tough.

“You’re playing in such large houses, and on Broadway there are certain things in your behavior you have to telegraph more. On screen, the camera picks it up. If the camera were on you when you went home, your life is just filled with you going about it unedited,” she explained.

“And that’s what people want to see when they go to the theater. I believe at the end of the day, they want to see themselves — parts of their lives they can recognize,” Davis said. “And I feel if I can achieve that, it’s pretty spectacular.” [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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