The Secret Life of Bees

Queen Latifah points out that life's stings can often hide sweet things.

Queen Latifah points out that life's stings can often hide sweet things.

(Fox Searchlight) Queen Latifah, Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Hudson, Alicia Keys, Sophie Okonedo, Paul Bettany, Nate Parker, Tristan Wilds. Directed by Gina Prince-Blythwood

Circumstances can often lead us to feel powerless in a world that seeks to put us down. It takes courage and a strong belief in ones self and the rightness of our path to make it through sometimes.

Lily Owens (Fanning) has had to live with a terrible burden. As a four-year-old, she was the witness to a terrible fight between her father T-Ray (Bettany) and her mother (Hilarie Burton), who had just returned after walking out on the both of them. During the course of the fight, she accidentally shot and killed her mother. Since then, her father has treated her as a burden, more of a possession than a person. When Lily transgresses, he forces her to kneel on powdered grits poured on a concrete floor (try it sometime and see how long you last – Lily was often forced to kneel for hours until her knees were raw and bloody). When he notices her at all, it is for her failings and not for anything that she might accomplish. She is a non-entity, a constant reminder for all he has lost.

Lily’s only real friend is her nanny Rosaleen (Hudson). A snuff-chewing tough gal who dreams of better days when LBJ signs the Civil Rights Act (the movie is set in 1964 South Carolina), she stands up to a trio of racist rednecks when she and Lily walk into town so that Rosaleen can register to vote. For her efforts, she is savagely beaten. The hysterical Lily calls the police who respond by arresting Rosaleen, perhaps for assaulting the lead redneck’s boot with her face. While the movie rarely lets us forget that we are in the pre-Civil Rights Deep South, this is the most vivid rendering of the African American experience of the time and place.

Disgusted that her father refused to stand up for Rosaleen and tired of his abuse, Lily decides to run away with her. She cleverly breaks her friend out of the hospital jail ward, which Rosaleen goes along with – only to discover that Lily really doesn’t have a plan beyond that. Actually, Lily is headed for Tiburon, South Carolina. She found a picture of a black Virgin Mary with the name of the town amongst her mother’s effects and decides to head over there to find out more about her mother. T-Ray had told her, in a fit of cruelty that her mother had come back the day of the fatal argument not to fetch her daughter but to pick up her things.

Walking and hitch hiking, the two eventually make it to Tiburon. At a local restaurant, Lily spies bottles of honey with the same label as the picture in her mother’s things. Turns out that the honey is made locally, “best in South Carolina” the proprietor of the diner crows. He directs the two to a large pink house on the edge of town. It is inhabited by August Boatwright (Latifah), a strong, big-hearted woman and her sisters June (Keys), who is very bright but cold, and May (Okanedo), who feels things so keenly that she is liable to burst into tears at the slightest provocation.

Worried that she’ll be returned home if she tells the Boatwright sisters the truth (and certainly June seems disposed to doing that anyway), she feeds them a line that she is in transit to visit her grandmother who has been hospitalized. They don’t have enough money for a train ticket to Virginia, and no local hotel will take a black woman. Over June’s objections and to May’s delight (she is immediately taken by Rosaleen), August allows the two to stay in her honey house, the separate building where the honey is made. In return, Rosaleen and Lily will work off their expenses.

Lily, already fascinated by bees, is in absolute heaven with the Boatwrights. She takes to the work…well, like a bee to honey. In return, August and her sisters teach her something about strength, character and love. When Lily brings the outside world into the special environment engineered by the Boatwrights, it threatens to tear everything apart for all of the women. They will need each other to get through the tribulations – and tragedy – that await them, and Lily will learn something about herself and who she truly is.

Based on the best-selling novel by Sue Monk Kidd, the film version could easily have sunk to a maudlin Lifetime movie-of-the-week level. Instead, the strong cast (including, surprisingly, Keys, best-known as a singer) elevates the material from treacle to comfort food. There are some questions that aren’t really answered here – for example, why would a town that refuses to let their African-American residents sit on the main floor of the movie theater or serve them in the diner allow a black woman to own a business on a substantial plot of land close to the town? It was rare enough for a woman to own her own business in 1964, let alone a black woman in South Carolina.

Latifah is becoming the kind of actress who fills up a screen with her personality. The warmth radiates from August on the screen and fills the viewer with it. She’s almost a fairy godmother in many ways, untouched by failing or foible. She must endure tragedy, however and her grief is palpable when it occurs, but she takes a character with almost no flaws and makes her human.

Okonedo is also a marvelous actress and her child-like May whose surface joy often ripples with the pain of having a beloved twin sister die. I’m not sure I can put a finger on it, but I noticed that whenever May was on-screen my focus tended to shift to her. Keys is also marvelous – in many ways, her portrayal of the cold, emotionless June was the most layered here. Bettany takes the most thankless role and brings some humanity to it, making the cruel and abusive T-Ray at least understandable. Fanning is transitioning from child actress to young actress; time will tell if she is successful but judging from her work here success is possible.

The beautiful cinematography brings to light an idyllic South, full of the golden light of late summer. This is a place of fantasy, of cool ponds to dip one’s feet and bees buzzing around in the twilight. It is a place that is comforting, one we pull around ourselves like a warm blanket and feel safe. That feeling of warm, safe security is what stands out about the movie. The Pink House is not only a place you’d like to visit, you’ll almost certainly want to stay a spell.

I know that the movie is a bit manipulative and I don’t care. I don’t mind being manipulated when it’s being done this skillfully. I also know that the movie is a bit unrealistic, but then again it’s a movie, not a documentary. You know things are going to end up well – in a place like the Pink House, they can’t help but do. Call it cliché if you want to, but for my part, I found the characters of The Secret Life of Bees fascinating and I wanted to spend as much time with them as I could. As far as I’m concerned, that makes for a successful movie.

WHY RENT THIS: The movie engenders a feeling of warm, safe security that the fine performances of the lead actresses are largely responsible for. Nice cinematography contributes to the idyllic atmosphere, and you wind up longing to spend more time in this world.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not the most realistic depiction of the Civil Rights-era South, although there are a couple of moments that are genuinely frightening.

FAMILY VALUES: Some violence and language but largely suitable for most teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Novel author Sue Monk Kidd based the character of Rosaleen on her own nanny, who was also fond of chewing snuff.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An interview with the author on the movie’s Pink House set, and an extended director’s cut in addition to the theatrical release.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Earth

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