The stars of The Help, having won the top awards from the Screen Actors Guild or "SAG," are now front-runners to get Hollywood's biggest annual honors, the Oscars.
Set in Mississippi in 1962, The Help stars Viola Davis as Aibileen, a black woman who has worked all her life as a maid and nanny for wealthy white families.
Based on a best-selling novel, the film details how Aibileen finds her voice as the civil rights movement builds momentum across America.
The sensitive and powerful performance has won Davis numerous critics awards and now the best lead actress honor from her colleagues, members of the Screen Actors Guild. Co-star Octavia Spencer won the SAG prize as best supporting actress for her portrayal of the maid Minny.
"It was really a privilege to work on a film that gave a voice to so many women who made it possible for me to be standing here tonight," Spencer said. "These women represented our mothers and grandmothers …and it was their courage and them facing the challenges that they faced every day and living their lives in dignity and grace. I thank you. By honoring me you honor them.
SAG also named The Help best ensemble performance for 2011. Viola Davis accepted that award on behalf of her cast mates.
Viola Davis (left) plays Aibileen Clark in "The Help."
"I just want to say that the stain of racism and sexism is not just for people of color or women. It is all of our burden. All of us," Davis stressed. "And we absolutely - I don't care how ordinary you may feel - all of us can inspire change …every single one of us. Thank you."
Their success at the SAG awards makes Davis and Spencer favorites to win those same honors at the Oscars. Awards analysts see the best actress category as a tight race between The Help star and Meryl Streep for her portrayal of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady.
Davis says it's gratifying because she knew that many black Americans today might be offended by the role these women were forced into by the realities of 50 years ago.
"It's very difficult because I thought 'do I want to play a character that could be viewed as so subservient?' But I see her as more than that," explained Davis. "This is all we were back then. Every once in a while you had someone who broke the norm, but you were maids …you were in subservient roles."
The struggle for civil rights is certainly a factor in the story, but Spencer says The Help is about much more.
"The civil rights movement is basically the backdrop. It's not about race. It is about relationships and empowerment. It's about doing what is right," Davis said.
Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis find out if they have also won Oscars when Hollywood's top honors are presented on February 26.