How 'The Help' Helped to Shape 2017 Oscar Season

How 'The Help' Helped to Shape 2017 Oscar Season

By Robert Dougherty Jan 11, 2017 08:34 AM
Photo Credit: DreamWorks Pictures

Two of the biggest female winners for movies at the Golden Globes were Emma Stone and Viola Davis. It is also no coincidence that one of the nominees Davis beat for Best Supporting Actress was Octavia Spencer, or that while Stone headlined the Best Actress Comedy/Musical category, Jessica Chastain rounded out the Drama actress category.

Of course, the common denominator for all these nominees is that they were the headliners of The Help back in 2011. About five-and-a-half years later, the impact of that film is still being felt in awards season 2017 and beyond, through all its stars and its subject matter.

DreamWorks Pictures

It has been easy throughout awards season to credit the #OscarsSoWhite backlash from last year for all the African-American themed Oscar contenders and actors this year. While some of that may be true and some of it may just be a case of ironic timing, it can't be ignored that the likes of Fences, Hidden Figures, Moonlight and others are opening doors that The Help first cracked open.

Like those more current films, The Help sought to shed light on the hidden figures of the African-American experience that were largely ignored in history, both then and now. While such movies have been around for decades, The Help was one of the more successful examples of the current decade, both in awards and in box office. It helped prove there was a market that would flock to see this kind of subject matter with these kinds of main characters, at least to a point.

DreamWorks Pictures

Perhaps it was easier because the main character was actually Stone's white writer, and because the serious civil rights matters were balanced out by much more broad material about pies. In that context, The Help wasn't entirely embraced as the most shining example of telling the story of black America. Nonetheless, more shining examples would come in waves years later.

The year after The Help, Django Unchained went even further back into the past of black America, through even more bombastic storytelling. Yet it too became a big box office hit and an award winner, despite backlash and controversy on how it repackaged a story of racism and oppression in the South for white audiences. But both The Help and Django were the warm up act for 12 Years a Slave to go even further the next year, all the way to the main Oscars winner circle.

Django and 12 Years may well have been made with the same level of success without The Help going first. Still, despite how extremely different all three films are, The Help was the first of them to prove racial issues, broad commercial appeal and awards friendly storytelling could all co-exist in the same movie. It set the bar for other films to go even higher in all those elements, and now some of this year's biggest contenders are doing the same.

20th Century Fox

Hidden Figures has Spencer and another group of overlooked, hard-working African-American women as its leading characters in a 60s era story. But these women are NASA mathematicians who actually existed, in a story that doesn't have The Help's brand of comic relief, has no white character with higher billing, and has Spencer as the most reserved member of the lead trio. Even so, it appears it may ride big box office success, crowd pleasing empowerment and critical acclaim into the Best Picture field too.

Fences has Davis playing another kind of invisible woman from decades past, in this case a 1950s housewife instead of a maid. Yet just as The Help had Davis start out as a repressed, reserved woman and emerge as someone who finally finds their own voice, Fences takes her through that path in even explosive ways. That formula nearly landed Davis the Oscar for The Help until Meryl Streep caught up to her, but it appears there is no Streep like competition for her in the Best Supporting Actress field this year, not even Spencer.

Paramount Pictures

Despite Hidden Figures and Fences emerging as potential Best Picture nominees, they and all other contenders are all looking up to La La Land. Even in a year where African-American themed stories are real Oscar factors this time, the favorite is a movie led by none other than Stone. The Help controversially made her character's journey towards creative success the lead story over her African-American co-stars, but there are no such issues around the creative struggles of Stone's La La Land actress, although it does position Ryan Gosling as a greater savior of real jazz than John Legend.

Leaving that aside, this is an Oscar season where giving due credit to overlooked African-Americans, both real and fictional, has been a major part of some of this year’s big contenders. The Help got the ball rolling on such tributes and subject matter in this decade, and others have picked up the torch to do a more thorough and even more powerful job, this year more than ever.

That is one reason The Help’s legacy has been such an important part of this awards season, to say nothing of what its stars have done to take part in it. In many ways, their roles as contenders wouldn’t have been possible if The Help didn’t get the ball rolling for them as well.

DreamWorks Pictures

Before The Help came along, Stone was best known for comedy in Easy A, Zombieland and Superbad. However, The Help was Stone’s first leading role with both comedy and drama involved, leaving aside whether it should have been the leading role or not. Yet it was still a big stepping stone for Stone’s career, and after she was done getting sidetracked by the Amazing Spider-Man films, she took the next step with Birdman and then with La La Land.

Spencer came much further out of nowhere, having been best known for TV guest spots before becoming The Help’s sole Oscar winner. But despite appearing in the likes of Fruitvale Station and Snowpiercer, it took Hidden Figures to get Spencer back into Oscar contention for the first time since The Help days, where she would be in the same category with Davis this time.

DreamWorks Pictures

Unlike Stone and Spencer, Davis was already a proven Oscar nominee thanks to Doubt. Nonetheless, that nomination didn’t open many doors for her until The Help broke more of them down. Even then, however, it took getting into Shondra Rhimes’ TV universe a few years later for Davis to become a pop culture icon, but now Fences stands to finish the job.

For all of Stone, Davis and Spencer’s success in 2011, they weren’t as busy that year as Chastain was. Yet out of all her films which came out that year, like The Tree of Life and The Debt, it was The Help that made her a household name and an Oscar nominee. It opened the floodgates for films like Zero Dark Thirty, Interstellar, The Martian and this year’s Golden Globe nominated turn in Miss Sloane, which may actually have Chastain’s most comedic material since The Help.

DreamWorks Pictures

Now all four of The Help’s leading ladies are Golden Globe nominees in the same year, although just two of them are locked in Oscar nominees and only three of them at the most could get in. Yet two of them may well be the big actress winners on Oscar night, which would make quite a Help reunion for Stone and Davis.

There is one other Help leading lady who isn’t up for the Oscars this year, but is still enjoying her biggest success to date lately. In fact, Bryce Dallas Howard will join Stone, Davis and Spencer as SAG nominees on Jan. 29, albeit in the TV category for her guest spot in Black Mirror. Still, Jurassic World has been an even bigger breakout for Howard recently, although infamous high heels overshadowed her in that movie just as an infamous pie did in The Help.

DreamWorks Pictures

Ironic enough, the director who launched all of these actresses in The Help had less success than all of them this past fall. Tate Taylor’s own big fall 2016 project was The Girl on the Train, but after having Stone, Davis, Spencer, Chastain and Howard bring a best-selling civil rights comedy/drama to life, he seemed more out of his depth having Emily Blunt, Hayley Bennett and Rebecca Ferguson act out a best-selling murder mystery.

That is the only example where the legacy of The Help didn’t make a positive impact this fall. Otherwise if not for The Help, we might not have Stone and Davis leading their Oscar races, Chastain and Spencer threatening to round out those races, or the likes of Hidden Figures, Fences and Moonlight solving the #OscarsSoWhite problem this year either.

Stone, Davis, Chastain, Spencer, Howard and movies about suppressed African-Americans may have all outgrown The Help now, and are arguably all the better for it. Even so, they and this entire Oscar season owe a major debt to it for shaping where they all are now.

DreamWorks Pictures

Tags: The Help (2011), La La Land (2016), Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Bryce Dallas Howard
About the Author
Robert Dougherty is a longtime online freelance writer, who wrote reviews, articles & editorials on movies/TV for several years on the now defunct Yahoo Voices.
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