On the surface, The Secret Life of Bees, appears to be another film about a group of all-forgiving, African-American women caregivers who come to the rescue of a white girl in distress. However, as directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball), the film goes far beyond the typical Mammy fare.
Each of the central black female characters has created a loving sanctuary from the limitations placed on black women in the segregated South. So even though the film’s plot is driven by their intervention in the life of 14-year-old white girl, Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning), their characters are fully drawn, complicated figures, giving a picture of sisterhood that crosses racial boundaries.
Set in the Deep South during the social upheaval of the 1960s, the film is a faithful adaptation to Sue Monk Kidd’s 2002 New York Times best seller. Young Lily is emotionally scarred from a sense of abandonment after her mother’s death. Unable to handle living with her emotionally distant and abusive father T. Ray (Paul Bettany), she decides to go on the run, taking her black housekeeper/surrogate mother, Rosaleen Daise (Jennifer Hudson) along with her. Both women are in search of answers to heal their pain and take charge of their future.
The pair soon lands on the door steps of the Boatwright sisters, an idyllic and colorful clan of black women who live in a “Pepto-Bismol–pink” house, worship a Black Madonna and own a prosperous bee farm.
The film’s fully loaded with the many social and politically transformative themes that defined the 1960s. It captures the racial tensions that arose after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed important Civil Rights legislation into law. The film also manages to tack on another social taboo when Lily grows close to Zach, a handsome, black teen (Tristan Wilds) who works on the bee farm.
Each of the four black female characters is equally compelling in their own right: Family matriarch August Boatwright (Queen Latifah) is undeterred by the harsh realities of Deep South life as she manages a successful business and provides unyielding love to her family. Sophie Okonedo sets the screen ablaze with warmth and humanity as the tragic sister May, whose fragility and purity of heart touches every corner of the film. Alicia Keys delivers a standout performance as second Boatwright sister June. She’s an activist and career-minded woman, ever determined not to compromise her independence, even at the risk of missing out on true love. Jennifer Hudson is convincing as an unrepentant black woman determined to find her voice and power through her act of registering to vote.
With Oscar-worthy performances by Fanning, Okonedo, Keys and Bettany, I predict that The Secret Life of Bees will be a hit for the fall. It delivers a solid message about the resiliency of sisterhood.
Gil L. Robertson IV is a journalist, best-selling author and lecturer. His work has appeared in numerous publications that include the LA Times, the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Essence and Black Enterprise magazine.