The Secret Life of Bees


Starring Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Hudson, Queen Latifah, Sophie Okonedo, and Alicia Keys

Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood

Rated PG-13

The secret life of bees?

More like the secret life of women.

The bee thing, it’s a metaphor, see, for how half the human race lives shrouded in mystery and darkness and, I guess, sweetness and honey.

Or shrouded in mysterious honey, at least, if we’re to take the word of pop culture, which ignores half the human race unless it can serve as a prize to the male hero, or unless it can be pandered to — and poorly, at that — with fluffy pink junk that is almost always simply men’s ideas about what these mysterious honey-covered creatures are like when they’re hidden away in their secret realms of, you know, the world.

I’m not ribbing The Secret Life of Bees, which is a deeply moving film about learning to understand where we come from and where we’re going, about incorporating grief and acceptance into our souls in order to make our lives richer and not letting ourselves wither over sorrow.

I’m ribbing a culture that makes this film extra-special extraordinary, because the people those things are happening to here are female.

I shouldn’t have to applaud even louder at something that shouldn’t be a rarity: a movie that understands that women are human and gives us a story about a whole bunch of different women who are not intended to represent three billion people — as the one token movie girl often is expected to — but only themselves, as individuals.

As people. Imagine that.

And not a pink frill to be found anywhere.

Oh my god, are you sitting down? I almost forgot to mention: All but one of those human female people here is of a skin tone that speaks of African heritage. I know it’s a lot to take in, the idea that black women are also individuals as varied and diverse as white men, or that movies about them don’t have to look like a Tyler Perry minstrel show.

Deal with it.

And then enjoy it.

Bees is a lovely story about an ugly time, the summer of 1964, when the new Civil Rights Act was making life in the American South more complicated for the very people it was meant to help. When Rosaleen Daise (Jennifer Hudson) dares to talk in a way less than 100 percent deferential to a white man in rural South Carolina, she is made to pay for it, to the horror of her adolescent charge, Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning), and this becomes the last straw in Lily’s own personal upset.

Haunted by memories of her long-dead mother and desperate to find out more about her — as well as to get away from her father, T. Ray (Paul Bettany), who has turned his misery on his daughter — Lily hits the road, dragging Rosaleen along, to another town she has reason to believe may hold some answers.

If Bees feels as if it’s dragging its feet just a bit in the beginning, that’s all forgotten when Lily and Rosaleen meet the spirited Boatwright sisters, who run their own little honeymaking business, enjoy a cultured lifestyle the likes of which neither Lily nor Rosaleen has even been exposed to before, and accept the young woman and the young girl into their home with open arms and open hearts.

And the movie — adapted from the novel by Sue Monk Kidd by filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood — seems to open its heart and arms at that point, too, wrapping you up in this odd little cobbled-together family and inviting you into their warmth and their love.

Fanning — just turning 14 years old when the movie was shot, the same age as her character — is once more amazingly wise in a role that would seem to require some hindsight on adolescence.

The singer Alicia Keys takes the tough and sharp role of the Boatwright sister June, and acquits herself well; Queen Latifah as the eldest Boatwright, August, again proves she has both movie-star charisma and gravitas in spades. But it’s the wonderful Sophie Okonedo as the sensitive and troubled May who steals the film: Though she received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for her performance in Hotel Rwanda a few years back, she’s been under the radar until now. Bees should change that.

Did I say there wasn’t a pink frill to be found? I lied.

The Boatwright house is painted an aggressively Pepto-Bismol pink, in precisely the kind of frill The Secret Life of Bees deserves to spout: It’s bold, loud, and flamboyant, just the right touch for a movie that’s all those things in spirit even while it’s gentle, shrewd, and kind on its surface.

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