The Secret Life of Bees (Rated PG-13) is worth seeing. Though the film’s been accused of being preachy, sappy, and borderline sticky sweet, Dakota Fanning had me at “I killed my mother when I was 4 years old.” If you don’t already know the plot from Sue Monk Kidd’s bestselling novel, Bees follows 14-year-old Lily Owens (Fanning) on a journey to uncover the secret past of the mother she accidentally murdered.
Armed with a few clues she’s kept buried in a shoebox, and accompanied by her faithful caretaker Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson), Lily flees an abusive father to Tiburon, South Carolina. Against the racially charged backdrop of the civil rights-era South, Lily and Rosaleen set out on a search for personal discovery.
Enter the beekeeping Boatwright sisters–August (Queen Latifah), May (Sophie Okonedo), and June (Alicia Keys). The ladies take in the travelers and bring healing and restoration through community and bee-inspired wisdom.
Queen Latifah, as we’ve come to expect, shines in the role of steady August. Alicia Keys is a believable NAACP activist, though she hides a bit behind the cello she learned to play for the film. Jennifer Hudson proves she doesn’t need to sing to dazzle. She holds her own opposite the tiny titan Dakota Fanning. Likely to go overlooked amid this largely female ensemble are the charming performances by Nate Parker (The Great Debaters) and Tristan Wilds (HBO’s The Wire). Parker, in particular, captured this reviewer’s heart as the love June Boatwright’s love interest.
Yes, I will concede, Bees is a bit sugary. Writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball) clearly knows how to tug at our heartstrings. But who can’t use a spoonful of honey-soaked sentimentality given the stress of our times?
Some Christian viewers will likely feel uneasy with the presence of a mystical Black Madonna statue standing in the middle of the Boatwrights’ living room. The icon opens the door for August to share a fiery homily on spiritual empowerment that blends elements of Catholicism, feminism, and Afro-centric folklore. While Christians should be prepared to wrestle with the religious and sociological implications of this minor plot thread, it’s not a reason to avoid the film.
If I had any disappointment with the film, it’s related to the fact that Bees is ultimately about Fanning’s character. Hollywood has a habit of casting the lives of black women as the background against which white lead characters operate. It’s been a great source of frustration for many black actresses. They are either relegated to being the black best friend or the maternal figure, as we see here in Bees.
argues that “[Bees] goes far beyond the typical Mammy fare” with black characters that are “fully drawn, complicated figures, giving a picture of sisterhood that crosses racial boundaries.” I’ll accept that, as I do believe Prince-Bythewood remains true to the book. But with such rich, multi-dimensional characters as the black women in this film, it’s a shame their stories are relegated to supporting plotlines.
If taken for what it is–a film about forgiveness and the universal need to be loved–The Secret Life of Bees is a solid effort, loaded with great performances. But could it have been more? Let us know what you think of the film.