The Help actresses are worth celebrating for their off-screen roles, too

Viola Davis, Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Howard, Jessica Chastain
David Edwards

When released in 2011, The Help became an instant classic that had audiences laughing and crying around the globe. The film was adapted and directed by Tate Taylor and is based on the best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett. The story centers around a southern society girl who returns to the town of Jackson, Mississippi and ends up interviewing two Black women working for wealthy white families at the cusp of the civil rights era. Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) first interviews Aibileen Clark and Minny Jackson (Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer) about their experience working in Jackson, Mississippi, and in turn, inspired more women to step forward and tell their stories.

When filming The Help, Tate Taylor stayed true to Kathryn Stockett’s original story and only made minor changes in the film. See The Help movie stills here.

So, is The Help based on a true story?

Kathryn Stockett described the novel as fiction, but that she based The Help off her early years growing up in Jackson, Mississippi where many of the families around her had Black women working in households, cooking, cleaning, and raising their children. Kathryn Stockett wanted to focus on the relationships she cultivated with these individuals in her younger years and bring their stories to the masses.

While Kathryn Stockett’s book is a poignant story filled with hope, the star-studded cast helped bring the characters to life in the 2011 film adaptation. 

The Help full cast is mostly women, includeing actresses Jessica Chastain, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, and Emma Stone. While they inspire us on-screen, we’re even more inspired by what these Hollywood women have accomplished off-screen since The Help’s 2011 premiere.

Before diving into The Help characters, watch the trailer here and feel ALL the feels. 

The Help Cast: Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis)

Played by the effervescent Viola Davis, Aibileen Clark is one of The Help’s main characters in the 2011 film. Aibileen is a reserved yet nurturing woman who raised over 17 white children throughout her life. Aibileen works for socialite Elizabeth Leefolt (Shane Mcrae), acting as the main caretaker for her daughter Mae Mobley. She cares deeply for Mae and almost sees her as one of her own.  Even at three years old, Mae Mobley does not fit into the society she was born into, but Aibileen is always there throughout the film to remind her of her worth. 

“You is kind. You is smart. You is important.”

This line is one of the most memorable in both the film and book and is still referenced nowadays:

Both Viola Davis’s personal and professional life tell a story of excellence, from overcoming poverty in her early life to winning an Oscar for her performance in Fences. 

It is well known that Viola Davis was hesitant to play this role. In 2011, we reported how she said to Essence that “As Black women, we’re always given these seemingly devastating experiences, experiences that could absolutely break us. But what the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls the butterfly. What we do as Black women is take the worst situations and create from that point.”

The radiant Viola Davis has stayed true to her word, creating from the worst situations and serving as Hollywood’s triple threat for almost a decade, absolutely blowing away audiences on stage, film, and television. TIME named her one of the 100 most influential people in both 2012 and 2017. 

In an emotional tribute to Viola Davis, Meryl Streep (yes, THE Meryl Streep) commended the fellow actress: 

“Viola Davis’ hard-won, midlife rise to the very top of her profession has not led her to forget the rough trip she took getting there. And that is why she embodies for all women, but especially for women of color, the high-wire rewards of hard work and a dream, risk and faith.”

Viola Davis is the first Black actress to win the triple crown (winning a Tony Award, an Emmy, and an Academy Award). She received a total of 11 nominations. Fences (the film), Fences (the stage play) How To Get Away with Murder, and King Hedley II have all won her awards. 

In February 2021, the How To Get Away with Murder Instagram account praised Viola Davis for her 2021 NAACP Image Award Nomination:

These days, when Viola Davis isn’t slaying at the Golden Globes, she is busy filming for The Suicide Squad, set to release later this year.

Serving looks on and off-screen!

The Help Cast: Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer)

Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) truly steals the show in The Help with her witty dialogue and a wide array of facial expressions. Minny’s demeanor is fiery and quick-witted. A character that’s never afraid to speak her mind, she is a fellow maid and best friend to Aibileen.  Through their friendship, Minny is able to show her vulnerability. 

The Help’s chocolate pie scene is all thanks to Octavia Spencer

Throughout the film, Minny is in a rivalry with her racist employer, Hilly Holbrook, who fires her for using the inside bathroom during a storm. Hilly Holbrook jeopardizes Minny’s chances of finding work, so to get even Minny makes her one of her famous chocolate pies with a special ingredient––you’ll have to watch the film and see for yourself.

Fans took to Twitter to express their love for Minny and this iconic pie scene:

The scene is still relevant nowadays:

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the relationship between Minny and Celia Foote. When Minny begins to secretly teach Celia how to cook and clean, they develop an unexpected friendship and through this commodore, both of the characters find a strength they didn’t know they had. 

This friendship goes far beyond the big screen. Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain have nothing but love and respect for one another. According to CNBC, Jessica Chastain reached out to Octavia Spencer and discussed the pay gap in Hollywood between men and women and how to bridge that gap. Being a Black woman working in Hollywood, Octavia Spencer had some perspective to add to the discussion:

“But here’s the thing, women of color on that spectrum, we make far less than white women. So, if we’re gonna have that conversation about pay equity, we gotta bring the women of color to the table.”

Because of this conversation, Octavia Spencer was able to make five times more than her asking salary. Friendships like the one between Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer are special because they inspire change and create a dialogue around the pay gap, race, and other important issues. Octavia Spencer has voiced how appreciative she is of Jessica Chastain’s support and friendship.

This is just one example of Hollywood women coming together to make change happen for all––see more examples here.

Octavia Spencer won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in The Help, and received nominations for her roles in the 2018 Guillermo Del Toro film The Shape of Water and for the biographical film Hidden Figures.

In 2020, Octavia Spencer plays the trail-blazing entrepreneur Madam CJ. Walker in the miniseries Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker. The miniseries received great reviews and is available to watch on Netflix.

The Help Cast: Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone)

Skeeter Phelan (played by Emma Stone) is a young, white college graduate who comes back to her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi after college. She is an independent thinker who has aspirations to one day become a novelist. 

Being back in her hometown opens Skeeter’s eyes to the segregation and immorality that exists within her very own culture. Her initial aspiration of writing a book shifts to an aspiration to do the right thing and give a voice to the voiceless, despite what she may lose because of it. Through Aibeleen Clark and Minny Jackson, Skeeter is able to gain some insight into their world and become a better person because of it. 

In a 2011 interview with Timeout MagazineEmma Stone explains:

“ The story itself is what drew me to the movie more than anything. I was raised in Arizona and I went to public school, and the extent of my knowledge of the civil-rights movement was the story of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. I wonder how much my generation knows.”

Even in real life, Emma Stone was eager to hear stories about the Black experience in America, which made her all the more perfect for the role. 

Emma Stone was nominated for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in both Birdman (2015) and The Favourite (2017) and won Best Actress in La La Land

Emma Stone has wowed audiences with her wide-ranging performances and characters and no matter what, truly embodies the character she is playing.

In 2021, the new trailer for Disney’s Cruella was released in February giving us a look into Cruella’s days in London before we knew her as the puppy stealing villain. 

The Help Cast: Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) 

Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) serves as the main antagonist in The Help. Though Hilly shows some semblance of kindness, she is deeply racist and clearly sees herself as a righteous member of the upper echelon of Jackson, Mississippi. 

As the top socialite in Jackson, Hilly seems to have it all––the big house, the husband, the kids–– but Hilly will not relax until the whole town of Jackson, Mississippi, adheres to the idea of segregation. 

Hilly Holbrook is most definitely the villain of the film and is not liked by many––even Bryce Dallas Howard herself doesn’t seem to like her:

While Hilly Holbrook is an abhorrent character, the actress who plays her, Bryce Dallas Howard, is dedicated to amplifying Black voices. In an Instagram post, she said:

“Stories are a gateway to radical empathy and the greatest ones are catalysts for action, If you are seeking ways to learn about the Civil Rights Movement, lynchings, segregation, Jim Crow, and all the ways in which those have an impact on us today, here are a handful of powerful, essential, masterful films and shows that center Black lives, stories, creators, and/or performers.”

She proceeded to list other films to watch that amplify Black voices. Her list included I Am Not Your Negro⁣, Just Mercy⁣, Malcolm X⁣, Selma⁣, When They See Us, and many other films. Read the full post here.

Bryce Dallas Howard continues to support all of the women around her, taking to Twitter  on International Women’s Day:

The actress also joined other Hollywood women to call for change within the HFPA before the 2021 Golden Globes Awards:

Since her villainous role in The Help, Bryce Dallas Howard has starred in huge Hollywood blockbusters like Jurassic World and Spider-Man 3

She even took the director’s chair, directing both seasons of The Mandalorian on Disney+ and reportedly her own kids influenced the now iconic Baby Yoda.

The multi-talented celebrity founded Nine Muses Entertainment with a mission “to refine the storytelling-development process by incorporating emerging technologies and facilitating unique forms of artistic collaboration.” Their most recent project is the Apple TV+ feature film documentary DADS which is “an unfiltered, humorous documentary that explores and celebrates modern fatherhood through the eyes of comedians and extraordinary everyday dads around the world.”

The Help Cast: Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain)

Did you know Jessica Chastain almost didn’t audition for the role of Celia Foote?! Jessica Chastain is an endearing yet clueless character, playing a sharp contrast to Hilly Holbrook. Even with her blonde hair and fake eyelashes, Celia does not fit into the high society of Jackson, Mississippi. She tries her best to fit in with a glamourous crowd but because of her poor upbringing, she is unable to truly blend in. 

Because of Celia’s background, she does not recognize the racist dynamics that exist within the community around her. 

In a poignant scene in the movie, Celia Foote hires a new maid, Minny Jackson, and greets her on her front porch. She welcomes Minny with bare feet and open arms as if they have been friends for years. 

Jessica Chastain’srole as Celia Foote gave her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, and we can’t imagine anyone else playing this part. She has gone on to star in other films like
Miss Sloane, The Zookeeper’s Wife, and the 2020 Netflix thriller, Ava.

The Help Cast: Constantine Jefferson (Cicely Tyson)

Constantine Jefferson (Cicely Tyson) deserves an honorable mention as a character in this film. Although her time in the film is brief, her words are very powerful. Constantine was the maid and caretaker to Skeeter when she was a child and has been a confidante to Skeeter for over twenty years.

In a heartwarming scene, Skeeter is upset and confides in Constantine, and Constantine gives her some words of wisdom.

“Every day you’re not dead in the ground, when you wake up in the morning, you’re gonna have to make some decisions. Got to ask yourself this question: ‘Am I gonna believe all them bad things them fools say about me today?’ You hear me? ‘Am I gonna believe all them bad things them fools say about me today? You hear me today?’ All right? As for your mama, she didn’t pick her life. It picked her. But you, you’re gonna do something big with yours. You wait and see.”

Although Cicely Tyson passed away in January 2021 at the age of 96, her long career leaves behind a legacy that we will never forget. Cecily Tyson starred in movies like The Autobiography of Jane Pittman, Sounder, and Fried Green Tomatoes.

In 2016, Cicely Tyson was awarded the Medal of Freedom award from the president, Barack Obama. He reminded everyone of Cicely Tyson’s words that she spoke throughout her entire career, saying how her “convictions and grace have helped for us to see the dignity of every single beautiful memory of the American family.”

Fans of Cicely Tyson took to Twitter to honor the late actress:

Rest peacefully Cecily Tyson, 96. Pioneering actress. 🥀

— Live Lit Legit Co (@legit_live) January 29, 2021

It’s crazy how some people go through life with so much grace and talent that you think they’ll live forever.

But she certainly will through her life’s work.

Thank you for 96 years, Cecily Tyson 🙏🏽

— Alex Holley (@AlexHolleyFOX29) January 29, 2021

The Help costar Viola Davis shared this tribute, too, saying how Cicely Tyson “made me feel loved and seen and valued in a world where there is still a cloak of invisibility for us dark chocolate girls.” Viola Davis included Cicely Tyson in a 2014 episode of her hit show How To Get Away With Murder.

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A post shared by VIOLA DAVIS (@violadavis)

The story of The Help is important, but so are Black stories told by Black people

In 2020, among the George Floyd protests and Black Lives Matter movements, The Help climbed to the top of the Netflix streaming charts, proving that even 10 years later we still love the characters and the actors that played them. 

Both following its release and its resurgence in popularity amid Black Lives Matter protests, the film has been criticized by multiple publications and influential figures (including Screenrant) for “its white savior narrative and its side-lining of Black perspectives.” The Help is written and directed by a white woman based on a book by a white author, so it makes sense.

In a July 2020 Vanity Fair profile, Viola Davissays how The Help was a way for her to rise to fame despite its problematic storyline, but she also regrets her role, saying “Not a lot of narratives are also invested in our humanity. They’re invested in the idea of what it means to be Black, but…it’s catering to the white audience.”

Despite her valid critique of the film, Viola Davisstill loves and appreciates the women she worked with on the film, including the white writer and director Tate Taylor, saying to Vanity Fair “I cannot tell you the love I have for these women, and the love they have for me, but with any movie—are people ready for the truth?”

Bryce Dallas Howard agrees with Viola Davis, saying in an Instagram post how the film is “a fictional story told through the perspective of a white character and was created by predominantly white storytellers. We can all go further.⁣”

Despite all of this, The Help tells an optimistic tale about the ability to love one another even when surrounded by hatred. Even more importantly, you see the love and support that The Help characters have for one another off the screen, which is something for all of us to feel good about.

Just like Minny’s chocolate pie, The Help has that special something. To watch more stories about the Black experience by Black filmmakers, take a look at the watchlist we shared on MLK Day 2021.

More Like This: Hollywood women are up for the challenge. Are you? 

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