The Secret Life of Bees
Film Review by Kam Williams
Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning) has been troubled since the age of 4 when she accidentally shot her mother (Hilarie Burton) to death. Her parents had been in the midst of a violent argument at the time, and the little girl was too young to understand the consequences of her innocent attempt to intervene with the pistol that had fallen right in front of her.
Unfortunately, her father T. Ray’s (Paul Bettany) subsequent unwillingness to talk about the incident has only left Lily so confused that she grew up blaming herself for the tragedy. Everything comes to a head on her 14th birthday, when the only present she asks him for is the truth about whether the mother she resembles but only vaguely remembers really loved her. When her alcoholic dad’s response is to punish her for even broaching the subject, she finds comfort crying on the lap of her nanny, Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson).
Not long thereafter, Rosaleen is beaten to a pulp for trying to register to vote, for she is African-American and this is South Carolina in the Sixties, during the waning days of Jim Crow segregation. Then, after T. Ray sides with the whites seeking to keep blacks in their place, Lily calls her father a coward and talks Rosaleen into running away to the town of Tiburon, the only clue she has of a link to her mother’s past.
Once there, it’s not long before the pair find themselves deposited off the beaten track in front of the Pepto Bismol-colored home of the eccentric Boatwright sisters: simple-minded May (Sophie Okonedo), cello savant June (Alicia Keys) and family matriarch August (Queen Latifah). The beekeeping siblings run a thriving business bottling a popular brand of honey called Black Madonna.
Lily and Rosaleen find themselves welcomed with open arms, and nourished by a supportive environment neither has experience before. More importantly, the spiritual oasis is able to answers the questions long nagging Lily like who her mother was and what could possibly have been her connection to this modest farm.
So unfolds The Secret Life of Bees, an optimistic tale of female empowerment set against the backdrop the Civil Rights Movement. The film is based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Sue Mark Kidd, a white woman who grew up in the South surrounded by black women and bees. As adapted to the screen by director Gina Prince-Blythewood (Love & Basketball), the story explores a treasure trove of themes ranging from racism to religion to sisterhood to loneliness to love and loss of innocence. But mostly Bees is about the individual urge for self-fulfillment, whether that be found in May’s constructing a Wailing Wall for her late twin, April; in June’s declining the proposal of an ardent admirer (Nate Parker) in order to pursue her dreams of a musical career; Lily’s daring to date a black boy (Tristan Wilds), or in Rosaleen’s determination to exercise her right to vote for the first time.
Heavily-laden with both symbolism and spiritualism, the picture relies on an array of evocative images such as queen bees and the Virgin Mary to deliver a series of subtle, yet very effective feminist messages. Particularly powerful is the silent scene where a piece of paper stuck in May’s wall of woe is unfolded to reveal a prayer for the four little girls blown up in a Birmingham church by the Ku Klux Klan.
Smart and sentimental but not syrupy, with a well-executed script guaranteed to leave you in tears.
Excellent (4 stars)
Rated PG-13 for violence, mild epithets, ethnic slurs and mature themes.
Running time: 110 minutes
Studio: Fox Searchlight