The Secret Life of Bees, adapted and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood from the best-selling book by Sue Monk Kidd, weaves racism and the civil rights movement around the story of Lily (Dakota Fanning), a young white girl taken in by three African-American sisters when she runs away from her controlling, emotionless father. It's a role that's in some ways reminiscent of the character Fanning played in Hounddog, a film that was critically panned and rather controversial for having a scene in which Fanning's character was raped.
This time around, there's no such awkward controversy; The Secret Life of Bees is a sweet, mostly charming coming-of-age tale that, while it doesn't particularly break any new ground with regards to the filmmaking, does an able enough job of adapting a bestselling book of the "women's bookclub" variety for the screen. Here's the basic story: Lily is haunted by the death of her mother; now, on the eve of her fourteenth birthday, she's had enough of her father, T-Ray (Paul Bettany), and starts to fight back against him.
When their maid, Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson), is accosted by a pack of angry white men on the way to registering to vote -- and ends up arrested herself for her trouble -- Lily decides that it's time for both her and Rosaleen to escape. She has a vague idea about where to go -- Tiburon, South Carolina -- based only on the name of a town written on one of the few possessions she has of her mother's, and a label from a honey jar.
Lily learns the honey business -- Black Madonna Honey -- is owned by an independent black business woman named August Boatwright (Queen Latifah), she and Rosaleen show up on the doorstep of August's bright pink farmhouse and ask for a place to stay. Given that, in spite of the very recent signing of the Civil Rights Act, there's no hotel in South Carolina that would allow Rosaleen to stay there, August graciously allows Lily and Rosaleen to stay in the honey house and earn their keep helping out.
August Boatwright and her sisters, May and June, are a bit of a paradox: they're fiercely intelligent and independent, in spite of growing up in a time and place when black people were ruthlessly oppressed; they own over twenty acres of land inherited from a grandmother; August owns a thriving and successful business, while her sister June (Alicia Keys) plays the cello and teaches music. Their sister May (Sophie Okonedo) is a simple, sweet girl who, having been traumatized by the death of her twin sister, April, feels all the pain in the world and takes it on herself.
While it's great to have a story built around a trio of strong black women set in the dawning of the civil rights movement, rising above the ugliness and oppression surrounding them, it's also rendered somewhat less believable by the fact that we very rarely see them openly challenged by the local white folks. June canvasses to get other blacks in the area to register to vote while wearing an NAACP t-shirt, but no white person in this 1960's South Carolina town that we see, or even hear her talk about, harasses or threatens her in any way. August owns her own business and lives in a large, lovely home on 20 acres of land; none of the white folks take issue with this because, well, she makes great honey. With the one exception of August's godson, Zachary, between attacked for sitting in the "colored" balcony with Lily at a movie, these darker issues seem not to exist in this film; it's like some mythical civil-rights Southern paradise where racism only rarely rears its ugly head, and thus feels
There are bits in the film that do address those issues in subtle ways, particularly in the character arc of Rosaleen, who's always been a simple girl, raised to not expect more from life than being a maid to white people; When Rosaleen meets August and her sisters, she sees for the first time black women who are actively engaged in fighting oppression by the way in which they live their lives: August by being a successful business woman and property owner, and June by playing her cello, teaching classical music, and canvassing to get the blacks in town registered to vote. You can see in Rosaleen that the level of culture, fierce independence and overt intelligence she sees in the Boatwright sisters is something she's never imagined as a possibility for herself, and the arc of her character is the most interesting in the film.
The film is nicely shot, looks great, and is bolstered by a lovely score by Mark Isham (who also wrote one of my favorite film scores for A River Runs Through It). In spite of centering around the civil rights movement, this isn't a heavy film; fans of the book should like it jut fine, and it's the kind of movie a mom can take her pre-teen daughter to and rest assured that the violence that's there is subdued. It's rather like Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants: a light, easy-to-digest book adapted into a light and easy-to-digest film. And that's not a bad thing, necessarily, but as movies go, it's more of a snack than a satiating meal.