When The Help, the highly anticipated adaptation of the 2009 best-seller about African-American maids and their employers in 1960’s Jackson, Miss., hits screens on August 10, it will represent a huge victory for the power of friendship — namely that between author Katherine Stockett and her childhood best friend, director Tate Taylor. “We were just these oddballs in Jackson,” Taylor says in EW’s cover story. “Latchkey kids, neither accepted in the Junior League set for various scandalous reasons. We knew the sun didn’t rise and fall over Mississippi.” Years later, after finishing the book, Stockett handed over the movie rights to her pal, whose one feature film, 2008’s Pretty Ugly People, made $7,000 at the box office. After the book was published — and catapulted onto bestseller lists (where it still remains today) — she faced enormous pressure to go with a bigger name. But she stood behind Taylor and his determination to adapt and direct the movie. “Once I made that decision it was such a relief,” says Stockett, “and I told everybody else to f— off.”

However beloved Stockett’s book may be, the subject of race — and of Hollywood’s complicated history with it — still hits a raw nerve in many circles. In fact, the film’s stars Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer often find themselves in the strange and unsettling position of having to defend their decision to play Aibileen and Minny, the proud maids at the heart of Stockett’s novel. “That’s what people bristle at: the maids,” Davis says in a no-holds-barred interview. “I’ve played lawyers and doctors who are less explored and more of an archetype than these maids.” Spencer is even more emphatic. “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.’”

For more on The Help, including a guide to who’s playing your favorite characters, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands Aug. 5.