“I killed my mother when I was four years old,” says the girl’s voice that opens The Secret Life of Bees. In flashback we see the horrific memory–a desperate woman packs to leave home, her enraged husband grapples with her, and a child’s hand reaches across the wooden floor for the fallen gun.
Now 14, Lily Owen (Dakota Fanning, Charlotte’s Web) yearns for memories of her dead mother. She treasures her few mementoes, including the image of a Black Madonna with “Tiburon, S.C.”printed on the back. Mistreated by her callous father, T. Ray Owen, (Paul Bettany, The DaVinci Code), Lily longs for someone to love her. Her only friend is the protective housekeeper, Rosalene Daise (Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls).
It’s South Carolina, 1964. President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act but it doesn’t change the hearts of people–and when Rosalene walks to town to register to vote, she is badly beaten by nasty bigots and arrested. Lily rescues Rosalene from the hospital and together they run away to Tiburon. In a sprawling Caribbean pink house, they find the three Boatwright sisters, the most intriguing trio of siblings you’ve ever met.
The eldest, August Boatwright (Queen Latifah, Mad Money), is a prosperous beekeeper, famous for the high quality of honey made by her bees. The middle sister, June (Alicia Keys, The Nanny Diaries), is a cellist and music teacher who prefers freedom with her sisters to the marriage proposals of her beau. Third sister May (Sophie Okonedo, Hotel Rwanda) is a child-like empath, so affected by the troubles of anyone, far or near, that she must escape to shed her tears on her home-made wailing wall. The sisters and several other women in the community call themselves The Daughters of Mary–they are devotees of Black Mary, a universal mother figure embodied in a wooden statue that was once an old ship’s masthead.
Intuiting that the house holds clues relating to her mother, Lily tells a pack of lies to convince the sisters to allow her and Rosalene to stay with them. Under August’s tutelage, Lily learns the art of beekeeping and the secrets to making bees–and other living things– happy. “The world is one big bee yard,” August tells her, “Send the bees love.”
Family friend Zachary Taylor (Tristan Wilds, TV’s The Wire) arrives to help with the honey production and is shocked to discover that Lily is white. He’s never been alone with a white girl and in the sweet isolation of the bee yard, their friendship blossoms. But when they try to sit together in the local movie theatre, Zachary is dragged out by an angry mob. The threat of lynching destroys the house’s tranquility and Lily blames herself for bringing in the ugly outside. More than ever, all the women need solace from the black Madonna. Secrets are revealed, and truth, like honey, pours forth golden and pure.
I’ve only read The Secret Life of Bees five times so I don’t have it memorized–but I can assure you the movie is faithful to the spirit–and the gloriously lyrical language–of Sue Monk Kidd’s brilliant coming of age parable. The performances are all exquisite, as if the script deliberately went minimalist so the actors could fill in the blanks with soulful silences. For some viewers, the direction by young Geri Prince-Blythewood might be too languid. For others, the portrayal of sexism and racism might be unrealistic–or not realistic enough–depending on your perspective.
The film has received some unduly harsh criticism–ignore it. Bees touches nerves that some people don’t want touched, so they claim the film is syrupy because they’re embarrassed to admit it made them cry. I loved every moment of Bees, and so will anyone who’s ever felt like a motherless child.