Karen Valby
August 05, 2011 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Last month the NAACP hosted a special advance screening of The Help, the adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s ubiquitous best-seller about the enmeshed worlds of African-American maids and their white employers in Jackson, Miss., at the dawn of the civil rights era. The emotional high point of the evening was when Myrlie Evers-Williams, whose activist husband Medgar was gunned down on his front lawn in Jackson at the age of 37 in 1963, took the stage. After gracefully accepting the crowd’s standing ovation, she gave the movie her most heartfelt blessing. ”They captured the times,” she said up on stage, alongside Stockett, director Tate Taylor, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Viola Davis, who anchors the film as the deep and privately roiling maid Aibileen. Evers-Williams then went on to urge everyone to soak up the film’s lessons of courage and liberation: ”If we look seriously at what is happening in America today, there is a need for that knowledge, there is a need for that connection. There’s a need for seeing the spirit and the determination of those people.”

It was an extraordinary public embrace, and one that must have given everyone involved with the movie, which also stars Emma Stone and Octavia Spencer, great reason to exhale. Because while The Help is a global phenomenon — the book has been on best-seller lists for more than 100 weeks — there are those, particularly in the African-American community, who see the novel, and now the movie (out Aug. 10), as further evidence of a crooked culture of storytelling when it comes to the black experience. ”I actually had one woman come up to me,” recalls Davis, ”and she said, ‘I’m going to tell you right now that I read the book and I was not in the least bit interested in seeing this movie. The only reason I’m seeing it is because you’re in it.’ But the great wall was already up.”

It is possible to both love and recommend The Help (both book and film), which this white writer wholeheartedly does, and still wrestle with the questions its popularity provokes. Such as: Stockett’s novel was aggressively marketed to readers of all colors; why do the vast majority of black writers not receive the same treatment? Why aren’t there more stories told about contemporary black life? And, conversely, is The Help unfairly being asked to atone for a history of sin when it comes to the way African-Americans are portrayed in literature and on screen? ”Look, I understand the backlash,” says Spencer, a longtime Stockett acquaintance whose marvelous bluntness inspired the character of the irrepressible maid Minny Jackson in the book. ”I get that people are fatigued [with Hollywood]. And people who make decisions have to be held accountable because they’re not giving the same opportunities to African-Americans or other people of color. But,” she says vehemently, ”it’s not Kathryn’s fault. I don’t think that you need to be a black writer or a white writer or an Asian writer to tell a story; I just think you need to be a good storyteller.”

When The Help was first published in 2009, booksellers were impassioned and reviewers were rapturous. Inspired by her own childhood under the devoted care of her now-deceased family maid Demetrie, Stockett conjured up the private worlds of Aibileen and Minny, two black maids who risk their lives to speak openly with a young, ambitious white writer named Skeeter (Stone) about their fraught experiences. The rich voices of these funny and brave women rang true, and the power of their unlikely alliance won over book clubs everywhere. On her personal blog, Alice Walker (The Color Purple) described avoiding The Help out of fear that its subject matter would pick at old scabs. When she finally gave in, she was struck by the novel’s ”healing response to a lifetime (really lifetimes) of injustice and hurt.”

The actors who would appear in the film recall approaching the novel with the same sense of wariness. ”I was so ready to hate it,” says Spencer. ”I thought that this was going to be another Gone With the Wind.” Adds Davis: ”Absolutely, I went in suspicious. Because a white woman was writing what I felt was our story and once again she’s going to get it wrong and she’s only going to skim the surface.” And yet, soon the actresses let down their guard and fell hard for women who were not in fact stereotypes but fully realized, exquisitely complicated human beings.

For some, though, Stockett touched too many raw nerves. For one thing, the author, a white Southern woman, had had the audacity to try to tell a story from the perspective of ”the help,” in exaggerated dialect, no less. And in an essay titled ”I Don’t Need Kathryn Stockett’s Help,” published last spring on TheLoop21.com, the writer Jamilah Lemieux (who hadn’t read the book) groaned over pop culture’s habit of returning to this codified social dynamic: ”While black women have and still do work as maids for white households, this is not so important a relationship between the two races that we need to continue revisiting it over and over again.” The novelists Virginia DeBerry and Donna Grant (Tryin’ to Sleep in the Bed You Made) asked in a blog post, ”Would The Help have received so much attention if a black writer wrote about her mother or aunt who actually were ‘the help’?”

Stockett’s critics would go on to cling to reports that a Jackson maid had filed a lawsuit claiming the novelist based the character Aibileen on her. The suit made splashy headlines. ”I don’t know this person,” Stockett says of Ablene Cooper, who came to work in her older brother’s home several years after the novelist had decamped for New York City. ”I’ve met her, like, ‘Hello, how are you doing?’ You could probably add it up to 15 to 20 seconds of hellos.”

When asked if she’s ever felt apologetic for anything — for her success, for her whiteness — Stockett lets the question hang there for a beat. ”Southern women wear guilt like we do a piece of clothing we can’t do without,” she says. ”It’s part of how we were raised. I don’t think I’ve apologized or felt the need to apologize for being white, but I very much have an apology on the tip of my tongue every time — ” she pauses, her voice catching, ” — this is a hard one for me — whenever I think about what I’ve done. That I have written in the voice of, really, our housekeeper Demetrie, and that I’ve tried to step into her shoes and imagine what she must have been feeling all those years. On the one hand, I want to apologize for doing that and being so presumptive, but gosh, it’s so important that we do this, in whatever manner. It has nothing to do with pity or feeling sorry for somebody. It’s just part of being a compassionate human being.”

Stockett and director Tate Taylor, both 41, have been best friends since they were 5 years old. ”We were just these oddballs in Jackson,” he says. ”Latchkey kids, neither accepted in the Junior League set for various scandalous reasons. We knew the sun didn’t rise and fall over Mississippi.”

Their paths eventually landed them in New York City, where in 1994 they moved into an apartment they still own today. (Stockett lives full-time in Atlanta, and Taylor in Los Angeles.) Taylor was one of the first people to read Stockett’s manuscript, and he optioned the book long before it was published. After the novel skyrocketed onto best-seller lists, Stockett remained loyal to her friend’s belief that he alone could properly usher the story to the big screen, despite everyone from her agent to her husband pleading with her to go with someone who had more on his résumé than a short film and a little-seen 2009 feature (Pretty Ugly People). ”Once I made that decision it was such a relief, and I told everybody else to f— off,” she says.

Taylor’s task was enormous: honor not just his best friend and his hometown experience, but also the affection countless fans have for the novel. First, he sold the film to DreamWorks with the promise that his adaptation would have authenticity and integrity. When he met with CEO Stacey Snider, he came armed with documentary footage he’d shot in Mississippi of maids and their employers. ”I was sobbing in the meeting,” recalls Snider. He spoke of his own relationship with his beloved childhood maid Carol Lee, whom he would go on to cast in the movie. (In a pivotal scene, it is she who first speaks up and announces to Aibileen and Skeeter that she’s going to risk sharing her story.) Next, he lobbied hard that they shoot the film in Greenwood, Miss., thus pumping $17 million into the struggling local economy. And he made the creative decision early on that while the book assumes the point of view of the three main characters — the maids Aibileen and Minny, as well as Skeeter — the voice-over in the movie would belong solely to Aibileen. ”This is not a young white girl’s story,” says producer Brunson Green, who also grew up in Jackson. ”This is African-American women’s story.”

Davis and Spencer love the characters of Aibileen and Minny, which makes having to defend them to detractors a strange and uneasy burden. ”That’s what people bristle at: the maids,” says Davis. ”I’ve played lawyers and doctors who are less explored and more of an archetype than these maids.” Spencer is even more emphatic. ”I am thrilled to be playing this woman,” she says. ”She is a human being with the breadth and depth of emotions, and she is a contributing member of society. It should not be ‘Why is Viola Davis playing a maid in 2011?’ I think it should be ‘Viola Davis plays a maid and she gives the f—ing performance of her life.”’

”We understand why the resistance is up,” says Snider. ”It’s a painful part of the past to revisit, and there has to be suspicion that the story will be told inaccurately or from too white a point of view. But the most important thing we realized early on was that we don’t have to sell or spin or manipulate. The movie itself will address what are understandable suspicions.” Since last March, the studio has been holding advance screenings across the country for mixed and black audiences. ”We went to Chicago and showed it to an entirely African-American audience of about 400 people,” says Taylor. ”Honestly, we went there to see if we were going to have our ass handed to us.”

Instead, he says, the movie was cheered. During a spirited discussion following the film, he recalls the audience thanking him for telling a fresh story that felt less like a history lesson than one of friendship and humanity. Later, DreamWorks screened the movie for longtime civil rights pioneer Andrew Young, who insisted they show it at the 100 Black Men of America national convention in San Francisco. ”He said, ‘Every young black man should see this movie to honor their mothers, their grandmothers, their aunts,’ ” recounts Snider. Tastemakers like Gayle King, Desiree Rogers, Russell Simmons, and Tyler Perry were all invited to see the film. ”Afterwards Tyler called me and said, ‘Stace, I loved the movie. I want to reach out. You know I have a big following? I’m going to tweet to them.”’

Perhaps no endorsement, however, will mean as much to Taylor as that of the woman who helped raise him. Next week, 60-year-old Carol Lee will step onto an airplane for the first time. In Los Angeles, DreamWorks will put her up in a suite at a five-star hotel. She’ll get her hair and makeup done and be chauffeured to the Hollywood premiere. There she will accompany Taylor, the man she walloped as a child for throwing a fake spider on her, down the red carpet.

Davis holds the role of Aibileen protectively close. And yet she also laments the limited variety of female characters she ever expects to play on screen. ”It’s not an issue of Hollywood,” she says. ”It’s an issue of culture. I mean, I’m a black woman from Central Falls, Rhode Island. I’m dark-skinned, I’m quirky, I’m shy, I’m strong, I’m guarded, I’m weak at times, I’m sensual, I’m not overtly sexual. I am so many things in so many ways and I will never see myself on screen. I actually had a person walk up to me once and say, ‘So, what person from history do you want to be? Do you want to just [play strong characters]?’ I had to stop them and say, ‘Just write a story. Just take a risk and tell the most fantastical story that you’ve ever wanted to tell and then put it in my lap, or Octavia’s lap, or Cicely Tyson’s lap, or Angela Bassett’s lap.’ There are few movies coming out this year with African-American women in them. Very few are being made. Black actresses have enough obstacles in our way without someone protesting an opportunity for us to show our work on screen. It’s one thing if you go see The Help and you don’t like it. But give it a chance!”

In a just world, Viola Davis will get to play the romantic lead in a movie that is marketed to audiences of all colors. And her painful certainty that she will never see a contemporary black woman on screen as layered and complex as she is will be turned on its head. ”If I woke up tomorrow and was 100 percent wrong about this, I would be so happy,” she says. ”But I’ve been doing this for 23 years.”

”That’s why it’s imperative that we celebrate this project,” says Spencer. ”Because if it doesn’t make money, at the end of the day no one is going to give a s— about whether Viola did a great job or not.” She lets out an exasperated sigh and cuts to the quick. ”Put your butt in the seat.”

The women of The Help
You’ve read the book, now learn about the actresses who’ll play your favorite characters in the film.

Viola Davis, 45
Aibileen Clark, maid
The Academy Award nominee (Doubt) has won two Tonys and will appear in December’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

Emma Stone, 22
Skeeter Phelan, aspiring writer
The star of Zombieland, Easy A, and Crazy, Stupid, Love will play Gwen Stacy in 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man.

Octavia Spencer, 39
Minny Jackson, maid
Spencer and director Tate Taylor were PAs on the set of A Time to Kill. Since then, she’s been in such films as Adaptation and Drag Me to Hell.

Bryce Dallas Howard, 30
Hilly Holbrook, socialite
She starred in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, played Gwen Stacy in Spider-Man 3, and will turn up in September’s 50/50.

Jessica Chastain, 30
Celia Foote, aspiring socialite
A frequent guest star on TV shows, Chastain starred with Brad Pitt in May’s The Tree of Life and will appear in this month’s The Debt.

Ahna O’Reilly, 26
Elizabeth Leefolt, socialite
O’Reilly, who recently ended a five-year relationship with James Franco, had a small role in the 2008 comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

Allison Janney, 51
Charlotte Phelan, Skeeter’s mom
Emmy winner Janney (The West Wing) was in 1996’s Big Night and played Juno’s mother in Juno.

Cicelyn Tyson, 77
Constantine Jefferson, Skeeter’s childhood maid
A three-time Emmy winner, Tyson may be best known for Roots and her Oscar-nominated role in 1972’s Sounder.

Sissy Spacek, 61
Missus Walters, Hilly’s mother
The Oscar winner (and six-time nominee) appeared on HBO’s Big Love. She’ll make her directing debut with 2013’s Sweet Tea.

Aunjanue Ellis, 42
Yule Mae Davis, maid
Ellis popped up in the films Undercover Brother and Ray and had a 16-episode arc as CBI chief Madeleine Hightower on CBS’ The Mentalist.

Mary Steenburgen, 58
Elaine Stein, book editor
The Oscar winner (Melvin and Howard) has starred in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Elf, and The Proposal. She will appear in this fall’s Dirty Girl.

Roslyn Ruff, 38
Pascagoula, maid
Ruff has guest-starred on The Sopranos and The Good Wife and has also played small roles in Rachel Getting Married and Salt.

(Additional reporting by Shaunna Murphy)

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