The biggest problem with Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Secret Life of Bees—apart from an inescapable degree of sudsy-ness—lies in the fact that it tries too hard to be too many things at the same time. The film’s slender framework can’t support the myriad story lines and concerns that are piled onto it. I suspect this may be inherited directly from Sue Monk Kidd’s novel on which Prince-Bythewood’s film is based (just as I suspect a only hinted-at subplot was dropped in the film), and I can see it working better at the more leisurely pace of literature. Now, having said that, I’m going to turn around and applaud the fact that the film has so much it wants to say. That’s so much more satisfying than confronting movies with no ideas at all.
As for the film’s sentimentality (of which there is much) and flirtings with melodrama, I have to say that I found the former honest and generally earned and the latter at least functional. The sentiment factor is rarely overbearing because the characters are all too busy and businesslike to play for sympathy. Everyone involved seems to realize that it’s easy to make your characters cry, but that doesn’t mean your audience will. The melodrama generally rears its head only to move the plot forward—and sometimes the film heads for it and then delivers something else. (To see what I mean, check out the scene when the “evil father” arrives.) For a movie that starts in full-throttle Southern-melodrama mode—with its central character, Lily (Dakota Fanning), remembering when she accidentally shot and killed her mother at the age of 4—what follows is pretty restrained.
The story is set in 1964 South Carolina, right at the time that LBJ signed the civil-rights bill into law—an event that flavors much of the film. It’s this new sense of empowerment that causes Rosaleen Daise (Jennifer Hudson), Lily’s family servant, to register to vote—a decision that earns her a beating and an arrest, since she dared to not back down from a white man. That act prompts Lily to run away from her abusive father, T. Ray (Paul Bettany), and rescue Rosaleen from the hospital. With Rosaleen in tow, Lily sets off to find out the truth about her mother, whom her father insists abandoned her, only coming back the day she was killed to get her things, not Lily. With the only clue being a picture of a black Madonna with the name of a town on it—Tiburon, S.C.—the pair head in that direction.
The picture ultimately leads them to the Boatwright family. The family is comprised of three black women—August (Quen Latifah), May (Sophie Okonedo) and June (Alicia Keys)—who run a bee farm and live in a fine old farmhouse (albeit one painted Pepto pink) on an unthinkable 20-plus acres. Lily is immediately fascinated by these reasonably affluent, educated and cultured black women—an assessment that Rosaleen finds offensive, until she has to admit that she’s never seen black women like this either. The undercurrent of the whole film lies in the concept of the civil-rights bill making it necessary for people of both races to broaden their stereotypical views.
That’s not as simplistically put forth as it sounds if you bother to examine what’s going on beneath the surface of the characters. There’s a rush in some quarters to criticize Latifah’s character as the typical, nurturing black woman, to view her as an extension of Louise Beavers in Imitation of Life (1934) or Ethel Waters in Member of the Wedding (1952), but is that really what we’re seeing? Look more closely and you’ll see the simmering resentment she feels over the years she spent as a paid servant caring for, shaping and even loving (against her will) a white woman’s child—all the while knowing that those who entrusted their child to her saw her as a second-class citizen (and believing that one day the child would view her that way, too).
Similarly, there’s been criticism of the film’s depiction of an idealized 1964 South—something that overlooks Rosaleen’s beating and arrest; the attitude of the liberal-minded lawyer’s secretary to the idea that Lily could be living with black people; the “colored only” movie theater entrance seen in the film; and the attack on the black boy, Zach (Tristan Wilds, Half Nelson), for daring to take Lily to the movies. That there’s a degree of fantasy here is hard to deny, but it’s actually kind of refreshing to find a film set in this era that doesn’t immediately assume that every white person in the South was a sheet-wearing racist.
Yes, the movie gets soapy enough. And yes, some things are badly judged: Lily’s water fight with June is weak TV-show comedy; the whole movie looks a little too TV-like (Prince-Bythewood groups her characters in camera-sitcom fashion way too often); and the speechifying often rings hollow. But all in all, Bees gets more right than wrong, making it worth a look. Rated PG-13 for thematic material and some violence.