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.
Given the film's wide cultural impact and its shock top prize at the Screen Actor's Guild awards last month, "The Help" could walk off with the best picture Academy Award.
"If there is a jawdropper on Oscar night, that is where it will come. I think 'The Artist' is way out front but 'The Help' is the sneaky underdog that is beloved and often that is what makes a winner," said Tom O'Neil of awards site TheEnvelope.com.
"It is not a movie with big Hollywood names. (But) it is widely-regarded as a well-crafted movie with an important message," he said.
STEREOTYPE OR CULTURAL TOUCHSTONE?
But not everyone shares the enthusiasm, particularly parts of the African-American community. Some 70 years after Hattie McDaniel became the first black person to win an Oscar (for her role as a maid in "Gone With The Wind,") critics say Hollywood is feting another film about the subjugation of black women.
Ida E. Jones, national director of the Association of Black Women Historians wrote in an open statement that far from being a progressive story of triumph over injustice, the way "The Help" depicts black maids is a "disappointing resurrection of Mammy - a mythical stereotype of black women who were compelled either by slavery or segregation, to serve white families."
Nevertheless, the film has had a huge cultural impact in the U.S. since its release last August. Michael Taylor, film producer and chair of film and television production at the University of Southern California, said "The Help" reminded Americans that discrimination is not a thing of the past.
"It comes at a time when people in this country had begun to think that we have an African-American president so maybe we don't need to deal with race relations anymore.
"But then along comes this movie which reminds us that maybe we need to take another look because we do in fact live in very segregated worlds," Taylor told Reuters.
If Davis and Spencer win best actress and supporting actress Oscars, they will join a small group of African-Americans to have won the honor including Halle Berry ("Monster's Ball") the only black female to have won in the lead actress category.
Davis was painfully aware of the responsibility on her shoulders when she signed up to play Aibileen Clark, a self-effacing maid who lovingly raises the children of her white employers but is forced to use a bathroom outside their home.
"I thought doing the movie was important because the maid hadn't been humanized before. I felt she remained a cardboard cut-out," Davis said. "Now I feel like my mother and my grandmother's lives have been acknowledged.
"There were so many followers of the book, so many people who had lived this life, who knew these people, so automatically you had big shoes to fill," she added.
O'Neil said Davis has emerged as a clear front-runner for Oscar, despite admiration for Streep and her "sledgehammer" performance as Britain's Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady".
"Voting for Davis feels important, as if you were embracing a significant message sociologically and historically," he said.
As for Spencer, who plays outspoken maid Minny Jackson, O'Neil said she had an air of Oscar inevitability about her after sweeping the supporting actress awards this season.
"It is the one award that the film really deserves because she is the one who strikes out among the downtrodden and gets revenge in a shocking way. Her clever defiance and her enduring spirit is what the message of the movie is really all about," O'Neil said.
(Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)