By JANE WILSON, Special To The Bulletin | Published October 23, 2008
“The Secret Life of Bees” is many things: a coming of age story, a discourse on female empowerment, a lesson in civil rights and a magical tale about slaying one’s personal dragons. If you accept the slow pace and open up to the fine performances, the film works on all of these levels and demonstrates the healing power of love and acceptance.
Based on the best-selling novel by Sue Monk Kidd, “The Secret Life of Bees” tells the story of Lily Owens growing up in South Carolina in 1964. Lily’s life has been shaped by her mother’s death in a horrible accident over a decade before. She lives now with her short-tempered father and is cared for by housekeeper Rosaleen. On Lily’s 15th birthday, she and Rosaleen are involved in an incident with some local men that results in Rosaleen being beaten and arrested. After a particularly vicious argument with her father, Lily decides that she has had enough. She helps Rosaleen escape and together they head for Tiburon, a town whose name is scrawled on the back of the only snapshot Lily has of her mother.
The trip is not easy; a white girl and a black woman traveling together in the South during the civil rights era raise suspicions. They make it to Tiburon, however, and there Lily is transfixed by a label showing a black Madonna on jars of honey she sees in a store window. Lily and Rosaleen track down the woman who bottles the honey, August Boatwright, who takes them into her home. Both runaways blossom under the care of the three Boatwright sisters—August, June and May. The Boatwright home is a unique haven of peace, tranquility and love. Rosaleen and Lily, unused to such a genteel atmosphere, eventually lose their suspicions and are slowly accepted as part of the family. Even when the outside world eventually intrudes on their idyllic existence, the women face their hardships with an unwavering faith and an abundance of love.
The title of the film comes from August’s livelihood. She is known for marketing the best honey around, and she takes Lily as her apprentice. August explains the “secret life” of her bees to the girl, and the cycle of the insects reflects the productive, organic lives the Boatwright women have made for themselves. They balance the desire for love with the necessity for independence, and they demonstrate the power of family and the will to do the right thing.
The center of the Boatwright home is a firm faith in God, and this is physically manifested in a statue of a black Madonna that they keep in their parlor. The Boatwrights’ home is always open for the neighborhood women who need to come and pray, and Lily and Rosaleen soon learn the legend of the statue. The image of the Madonna comes to hold a special place in Lily’s heart, symbolizing the maternal love she has always sought and finally finds in abundance in the Boatwright house.
The design of the film is also spot-on. The clothing, the settings and the scenery evoke a hot Southern summer. Even when the girls are safely ensconced with the Boatwrights, there is still a hint of danger at the edges of their world.
“The Secret Life of Bees” is marked by several strong performances by a fantastic group of actresses. Queen Latifah is the strong and nurturing mentor we all would wish to have. Alicia Keys hits just the right note of defensiveness as the prickly and independent June, while Sophie Okonedo is charming as the childlike May. Jennifer Hudson transforms from suspicious to steadfast as Rosaleen finds her place in the world. As Lily, Dakota Fanning has perhaps the most difficult job. She is the narrator of the story and travels the farthest emotionally, but she takes the journey in stride with a maturity beyond her years.
The idea that everyone deserves respect and love is at the heart of “The Secret Life of Bees.” The film is not fast-paced, but the quiet, simple story is often extremely moving. It shows that we often find home and family where we least expect them to be, and it illustrates that acceptance and love are often the most positive forces we can create.
Editor’s Note: In giving “The Secret Life of Bees” a rating of A-III—adults and acceptable for older teens, the USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting specifies that the film contains some profanity and crude language, racial epithets and violence, nonsexual child abuse, light underage sensuality, murder and suicide.
Jane Wilson, a local writer and movie enthusiast, holds a doctorate in English from the University of Georgia. She is a parishioner at St. Pius X Church, Conyers.