Keys delivers an assured performance as June, a music teacher with a commanding presence, a part the dynamic hyphenate called “heaven sent. Her specific being, the way she’s so strong but masking her vulnerability – I could really relate to that.” Mitchell eruditely compared her performance to the character Beneatha in Lorraine Hansbury’s Raisin in the Sun.
Oscar nominee Okonedo (Hotel Rwanda) gives arguably the finest performance in the film as the showiest of the Boatwright sisters, the quirkily fragile May, who is always cooking unusual foods and crying hysterically. “I had no idea what I was going to do until the first day,” laughed Okonedo. “I could go with whatever I felt that day.” Added Prince-Blythewood: “In the wrong hands, it could have been very bad.”
Hudson doesn’t have much to do in the film’s second half, when she basically fades away out of the story after being beaten. The Boatwright’s “adopt” her and she basically becomes their new cook, except in the end when she comes back to let everyone know that she registered to vote, out of the blue. To say her character lacks cohesion is putting it politely. Her character is the worst-written of the four African American roles, with very little back-story; it’s as though she didn’t exist before she began taking care of Lily.
Fanning, her awful performance, and her mawkish character literally ruin this film. Lily comes into the prosperous, happy lives of these women, and those that they know and trust, like a whirlwind and actually destroys or alters several of the characters lives’ forever through her childish actions, yet we are supposed to be forced to empathize with her for being “unloved” or abandoned. We are supposed to see her struggle to find her own identity, no matter the cost, as being heroic, yet it all just seems grating.
The simple fact that the diminutive white girl’s name is “Lily” is a hugely evident sign that the use of symbolism is going to hit you like a ton of bricks – her whiteness is as constantly pointed out as the other characters’ blackness is, as though she knows and understands what kind of struggle black people were going though at the time simply because she’s a little bit different from other white people. There’s still a power dynamic that is not addressed: even though Lily is but a child, in society at the time, she still held more sway in public. There’s even a scene that goes so far as to have her be the only person dressed in white at a funeral where everyone is black and wearing black, at one point, just to highlight the obvious.
After all of the havoc she wreaks, she is still allowed to stay with the Boatwrights. I think a more realistic approach during these final sequences could have benefited the story, but everyone just forgives and forgets. So essentially what we have is a film where Dakota Fanning’s character causes death and violence to many of her African American “friends” and never gets scolded for it or has to even really answer for her irresponsibility. Instead, she gets a family of black women to take care of her and mother her for the rest of her life. That is a horrifyingly loaded topic that I am not even going to delve into.
Towards the end of The Secret Life of Bees a totally ludicrous plot twist involving Lily’s mother suddenly springs forth and at that point, it’s hard to care anymore. I felt like my eyes might permanently stay rolled to the back of my head when this wholly implausible coincidence happened – if the filmmaker was going for a whimsical, mysterious, it wasn’t happening. It just seemed nauseating and emotionally manipulative.
Had the film taken the focus off of Lily, and shone a spotlight on the infinitely more interesting Boatwrights and Rosaleen, it could have been much better. Fanning wrecks the whole thing with a smug, grating turn, complete with a phony accent. “Why didn’t you love me?!” she screams to no one in particular as she hurls honey pots at a wall (again, with the dripping honey!) and has a general conniption. Amidst wild laughter, I thought “is this a rhetorical question?”
At the end I was crying alright, but certainly not because I was moved. In one of the final scenes, Fanning makes Zack promise to not be “mean” like the white men who earlier kidnapped, beat and tortured him, and I couldn’t help thinking how incredibly condescending that moment was, that this poor young man’s “prize”, as it is implied, will be a life spent with this irritating little girl, who has no clue about anything, telling him why he shouldn’t be upset by something so heinous.
I expect much more from projects like this, especially when they involve this level of talent. There is no doubt that there is dramatic potential, a degree of enjoyment, and definitely a bit of entertainment somewhere in there, but as Nate Parker (who plays Neil) said at the talk, actors have a certain responsibility to interpret the truth for audiences. If that statement is to be believed, then The Secret Life of Bees doesn’t fulfill it’s pivotal, basic duties.