Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Secret Life of Bees (Rhoades)

‘Secret Life’ Isn’t Really About Bees

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

No, “The Secret Life of Bees” is not a Discovery Channel documentary.

Nor is it a musical – despite starring Queen Latifah, Alicia Keys, and Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson.

“The Secret Life of Bees” is a honey-of-a-movie (forgive the pun) about a young girl’s search for love and belonging in the turbulent times of 1964. The film is currently playing at the Tropic Cinema.

The plot is seemingly straightforward, yet the emotions are complex: 14-year-old Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning) and her nanny (Jennifer Hudson) flee the girl’s bad dad (Paul Bettany) and take refuge in a Pepto Bismol pink house in Tiburon, South Carolina, where the beekeeping Boatwright sisters reside. Named after months of the year, the sisters offer a dramatic range: August Boatwright (Queen Latifah) is the compassionate matriarch of the family, surrounded by keep-her-distance cello-playing June (Alicia Keys) and emotionally fragile May (Sophie Okonedo).

It’s no accident that Lily lands on their doorstep. But is she really running away from her abusive father … or searching for her dead mother’s memory?

When idealistic teenager Zachary Taylor (Tristan Wilds) expresses surprise that Miss August has taken in a white girl, Lily suggests, “Maybe she didn’t notice.”

But black and white are very separate worlds in this bittersweet time capsule: President Lynden Johnson has just signed the civil rights act, yet blacks are turned away at the voting booth. Movie theaters have separate entrances for “coloreds.” And danger lurks for those who ignore racial lines.

Hard to believe this divide existed within living memory – when America soon may be celebrating its first black president.

“The Secret Life of Bees” is indeed a memory, originally told in the bestselling book by Sue Monk Kidd.

Kidd got her start as a writer when a personal essay was published in Guideposts Magazine and reprinted in Reader’s Digest. She went on to become a contributing editor for Guideposts.
Familiar territory, for I was a vice president with Reader’s Digest and my wife does promotional writing for Guideposts.

Many people asked why a white woman chose to write a book about a family of black women.
“Because I grew up surrounded by black women,” she says. “I feel they are like hidden royalty dwelling among us, and we need to rupture our old assumptions and develop the willingness to see them as they are.”

Is the story true? “I will also confess that small nuggets from my actual life did sometimes pop up and insert themselves into the story,” says Kidd. “Like the fact that bees really did live in the walls of my house when I was growing up. There was also the similarity that I, like Lily, had a nanny. But did she ever get thrown into jail? Did I break her out? Did we run away together? Of course not. The bits and pieces of my life that did manage to slip into the novel were only little springboards that helped me to leap to much larger, more vivid ideas and visions.”
Kidd adds, “Ultimately the story and the characters are not based on me and my life, but the work does reflect many of my convictions ... It is deeply affected by my particular life in the South, by my own intimacy with … the empowering bonds between women, not to mention my ideas about the transcendence of love, and what constitutes goodness.”

Think: “To Kill a Mockingbird.” With Dakota Fanning as Scout and Queen Latifah as a matriarchic Atticus Finch. There’s no courtroom drama, but the dramatic tension is palpable, especially when Miss August’s godson is taken away by bigots who object to his familiarity with Lily. And a family member decides life is just too heavy a burden to bear.

Director and screenwriter Gina Prince-Blythwood approaches it from the other end of the spectrum. An African-American filmmaker, she balances the movie’s delicate sensibilities, making sure this is not just a white woman’s view of blacks.

Will Smith and his wife Jada Pinkett Smith played a key role in bring the story to the screen.
The film – like the novel – is filled with metaphor: Just as a queen rules the beehive, females dominate the Boatwright household. Miss August is the “wise head of this female hive.” And a Black Madonna statue in the living room (and featured on their jars of honey) symbolizes a universal mother figure. While the backdrop is the Civil Rights Movement, the true theme is female empowerment.

Here in the Boatwright household Lily learns more about the mother she lost, discovers what it’s like to have a family, and finds many new mother figures who love her.
Dakota Fanning effortlessly makes the transition from child star to teen ingénue, holding her own among a cast where every performance is both strong and moving.

As an aside, Dakota Fanning came close to appearing in a Key West film called “All God’s Children” – the screenplay written by former resident Talmadge Heyward. Sean Connery’s son Jason was signed to star along with Diane Ladd. Dakota’s mom wanted her to join the cast of this indie production that I was helping executive produce, but financing fell apart during preproduction. Oh well, maybe later.

As for “The Secret Lives of Bees,” this honey-filled movie may be too sweet and syrupy for hardcore action fans. But it has a message worth hearing. As Queen Latifah sums it up when talking about bees (but not really): “Every little thing wants love.”
[from Solares Hill]

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