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How playing a maid won Octavia Spencer an Oscar

How playing a maid won Octavia Spencer an Oscar

How playing a maid won Octavia Spencer an Oscar

In our recent exploration of famous depictions of cleaning and cleaners in popular culture here on the Aurora blog, one common theme is that maids and cleaners don't always get the recognition they deserve.

The career of the American actress Octavia Spencer provides an interesting counterpoint to that trend. Spencer has been working steadily in Hollywood for many years, but it wasn't until her Oscar-winning role as a maid in the 2011 social drama The Help that she established herself as one of Hollywood's most acclaimed actresses - while also linking her career to the cleaning profession in a way that continues to pay dividends.

A story with real social resonance
Written and directed by Tate Taylor as an adaption of Kathryn Stockett's novel of the same name, The Help is an ensemble movie following a cast of characters living in Jackson, Mississippi in 1963, as the US Civil Rights Movement is gathering momentum.

It follows Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, a young white woman and aspiring journalist played by Emma Stone, who strikes up a friendship with two black maids working within her social circle.

By speaking to the pair - Aibileen Clark, played by Viola Davis, and Minny Jackson, played by Spencer - she gains an insight into the prejudices and injustices faced by African-American domestic workers, and decides to write a book shedding light on their stories.

As the book project moves ahead, Skeeter is forced to confront the racist attitudes that many of her white acquaintances have towards "the help" - especially the spiteful socialite group leader Hilly Holbrook, played by Bryce Dallas Howard. Aibileen and Minny, meanwhile, are given the opportunity to stand up for their own rights for the first time, while inspiring more maids to come forward with their own stories.

As the plain-spoken and forthright Minny, Spencer serves as The Help's heart and soul, and her performance earned near-universal acclaim. In 2012, she was awarded not only the Oscar for best supporting actress, but also a BAFTA, a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award.

The start of a successful streak
The critical and commercial success of The Help - which topped the US box office for almost a month and ultimately earned $216,639,112 worldwide - helped to establish Spencer as a star of considerable prestige. However, as fate would have it, this wouldn't be the only time the actress earned global recognition for playing a cleaner.

In 2017, Spencer appeared in Guillermo del Toro's Oscar-winning romantic fantasy drama The Shape of Water, portraying a janitor working at a high-security government laboratory. Acting as the supportive best friend to Sally Hawkins' heroine Elisa, who falls in love with a mysterious amphibious creature captured by the lab, Spencer once again earned rave reviews - and another Oscar nomination in the best supporting actress category, her third in total.

This made her the most nominated black actress in Oscar history, equalling her co-star in The Help, Viola Davis - a fact that underlines that cleaners really can be heroes and icons, too!

Here at Aurora, our expert cleaners may not win the same kind of international acclaim that Octavia Spencer has earned, but they're all superstars in our eyes. Once you see how hard they work to get your business premises looking spotless, we're sure you'll agree.

Watch the video of Octavia Spencer's heart-warming Oscar acceptance speech here: