When it comes to film reviews, my particular “gift” is trashing the presumably shittier side of cinema. So, I am, clearly, out of my element in reviewing a film that very well might present itself for some consideration during awards season. Still, a bit of variation never hurt anyone, so long as I exercise due care to avoid the pitfall of those previously exercised bee-related puns, for which I proffer a much-belated apology. While a few such metaphors for bees are, indeed, unearthed by The Secret Life of Bees, we won’t speak of them here except to say that, apparently, bees are much like people. Also, while the film’s title can be taken quite literally, the film itself details a manner of living that is quite foreign, if not altogether “secret,” to today’s theaters. For once, African-American women appear within a film as something other than the following stereotypes: (1) Lazy, demanding, money-grubbing sperm receptacles; or (2) Career-driven bitches who, through their own selfish successes, emasculate their husbands, leaving them with no other recourse but stick their dicks into other women. These stereotypes, of course, aren’t specific to race, and The Secret Life of Bees reflects aspects of women that show that, while not superior to men, these females demonstrate the strength, compassion, and lust for life that not only is necessary for survival of the colony but also to society at large. In other words, Tyler Perry, you can just go suck on your misogynistic bag of dicks.
The Secret Life of Bees certainly isn’t for everyone. In fact, this film will likely fare much better as a matinee (or even a DVD rental) than date-night material, that is, unless any dudes out there are interested in getting slightly misty-eyed in the theater. Director and screen writer Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball) has adapted Sue Monk Kidd’s novel into a celluloid tale that can best be described as a fish-out-of-water, coming-of-age tale set in some extremely difficult circumstances. The story tackles some pretty heavy subject matter, from racial tension and violence all the way to death, suicide, and child abuse. Unexpectedly, however, Prince-Bythewood keeps the tone as light as possible and has crafted, along with some extremely gifted actresses, an uplifting tale of sorts. As a whole and despite a fair amount of sentimentality, The Secret Life of Bees strikes a fair balance between drama and schmaltz, which is no easy feat to accomplish when dealing with rather some uncomfortable subject matter. After all, the deep South wasn’t an easy place for blacks in the period immediately following the mid-1960s Civil Rights Act.
The film opens both with a whimper and a bang, as we see a young girl hiding in a closet while her parents are fighting. In the physical struggle, a gun falls onto the floor, and the little girl’s hand reaches towards the pistol. Then, we hear 14-year old Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning) tell us that, at the age of four, she accidentally shot and killed her own mother (Hilarie Burton). As if the resultant overwhelming guilt wasn’t enough of a burden, Lily has been raised by a father (Paul Bettany) who despises her and regularly makes Lily kneel upon uncooked grits until her knees bleed. In her misery, Lily grows up obsessed with the mother that she barely remembers and only knows through a box of belongings that she keeps buried in the backyard. All is not completely lost, however, for Lily receives some care and nurturing from their housekeeper, Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson).
Immediately after the Civil Rights Act has been signed into law, Rosaleen attempts to register to vote, is confronted by a group of white men, who smack her around, and when Rosaleen dares to get a bit “uppity,” she ends up in jail. With Lily’s help, Rosaleen escapes, and, facing equally hopeless situations, the two decide to hit the road and find a better life. Lily, guided only by a scrawling on one of her mother’s keepsakes decides to head towards the nearby town of Tiburon, South Caronlina. She and Rosaleen find refuge at a honey farm owned by August Boatwright (Queen Latifah), who allows them to earn their room and board by working the beehives. August’s sisters, the compassionate and sensitive May (Sophie Okonedo) and the lively and musical June (Alicia Keyes), also live at the farm. As the story explains, there once was also a sister named April (twin to May), but she went the way of those disappearing showers, and, somehow, their parents skipped the month of July. While the somewhat clichéd names of the sisters might lead to an assumption that they are typically one-dimensional cinematic characters, this is not the case. Instead, the seasonal breadth of the Boatwrights comes off as hauntingly poetic, if not altogether breathtakingly beautiful when reflecting the scope of their characters. Through a dignified and inspiring sense of self-reliance, August shows Lily the ropes of beekeeping and inspires the young girl as well as providing Lily with a warmth that she’s never before known.
Although all of the major characters of The Secret Life of Bees do happen to be women, some males do appear in some auxillary roles to illustrate their impact on the characters’ lives. However, the focus remains on Lily and the Boatwright sisters, and each of these actresses gives a magnificent performance. Dakota Fanning, having redeemed herself from that child-rape atrocity known as Hounddog, makes the transition from a plucky and somewhat annoying child star to an emotionally-developed young actress on the verge of a long-lived career. Her portrayal of a character that has never known love — “I can’t think of something I’d rather have more than someone lovin’ me” — is both heartbreaking and heartening. Queen Latifah is convincing as a beacon of strength and kindness in her role; Alicia Keyes positively glows and demonstrates that her acting talent rivals her already-proven musical abilities; and Sophie Okonedo is transcendent while portraying her character’s emotional translucence.
The Secret Life of Bees is as much about redemption and a young girl’s search for love as it is about racism. Prince-Bythewood somehow manages to skillfully highlight the issues of race and violence but doesn’t dwell upon them. Instead, these issues develop valuable character-related context and provide a framing device for Lily’s physical and emotional journeys. In the end and despite the odds, Lily and the audience both find love and a sense of family in the oddest of places.
Agent Bedhead (a.k.a. “Kimberly”) lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She can be found at agentbedhead.com.Racism, Redemption, & the Dignified Death Grip of Latifah
Film | October 22, 2008 | Comments ()