May Boatwright (Sophie Okonedo) has a wall. At once simple and mightily symbolic, it’s made of earnest gray stones and marks the smalltown South Carolina property she shares with her sisters, August (Queen Latifah) and June (Alicia Keys). The wailing wall also marks time: beginnings and endings, history and memory, perpetual motion. There’s no clear line between one moment and another in the wall. Instead, each builds on and supports another. The wall serves as a monument as well: May slips into its cracks pieces of paper bearing the names of lost souls — her twin sister April, the four little girls killed in the Birmingham church bombing. The wall is where May remembers her pain and loss, remembers it even though she hardly has to — pain and loss are everywhere in the South during the early 1960s.
May’s wall appears repeatedly in Gina Prince-Blythewood’s The Secret Life of Bees, each time an invitation to reflect, to remember what was and hope for what might be. It appears for the first time when Lily (Dakota Fanning) sees it. She’s arrived at the Boatwrights’ place in pursuit of her own past and future, tracking a “Black Madonna” honey label she’s discovered among her mother’s belongings. Lily is traumatized by stories: first, courtesy her rednecky father t-Ray (Paul Bettany), that her mother abandoned her, and second memory that, as she says over a dramatically blurry flashback, when she was four, she accidentally shot and killed her mother. “She was all I ever wanted,” says Lily, “And I took her away.”
And so, when T-Ray’s physical abuse becomes too much (among other specialties, he makes her kneel in grits until her bare skin bleeds), Lily leaves home, imagining that the honey label will give her a clue as to why her mother married her father and, more importantly, who she was before she did it.
The label, it turns out, is August’s. She keeps bees and makes honey, maintaining a home for May and June (who, by the way, teaches music “at the school”) while dispensing sweetness and wisdom throughout the black women’s community in the town of Tiburon. She does this by means of weekly meetings, where women gather to pay respect to the Black Madonna, a carved wooden figure in the Boatwrigthts’ living room. Like May’s wall, the Madonna offers respite, a means for mourning and celebration, resisting and re-narrating. This community is close-knit and wondrous, the film proposes, to the point that the white community is pretty much evacuated from the women’s story. That’s not to say racism or white power structures don’t exist or affect the sisters’ lives, only that these outside forces are not the movie’s focus.
This dynamic is made explicit in Lily, who worries, when drama comes, that she is bringing “the outside” into the Boatwrights’ oasis. As a device, as an emblem of white guilt and good intentions, Lily is surely overloaded, with her mother’s death, her role as white person to be healed by a whole house full of black folks, and her embodiment of white desire for blackness (a theme revisited in Lily’s attraction to August’s beekeeping assistant, Zach [Tristan Wilds]). Being 14, Lily doesn’t always articulate her functions specifically, but the film uses her as (your) entrée into the Boatwrights’ world, making it seem at once strange and familiar, the place where she will discover and have “more mothers than any three girls off he street,” protected and nurtured by women who seem to her like “moons shining over me.” She’s an imperfect device, but her context makes her less troubling than others like her.
Crucial in this context is Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson), T-Ray’s housecleaner. Early in the film, before she and Lily “light out,” Rosaleen watches Lyndon Johnson on TV, signing, with a televisual flourish, the Voting Rights Act. It’s a brief but resonant moment for the film, as it underscores how important TV was to the Civil Rights Movement, by making public on network newscasts the abuses of demonstrators by cops with dogs and hoses, as well as the Johnson Administration’s actual legal and political work towards equality. The moment is also remarkable for its effect on Rosaleen: seeing this historic declaration of her right to vote, she determines to act on it. When she’s harassed, arrested, and beaten nearly to death for her effort, Lily is moved to save her and in so doing, save herself. During the current U.S. election, it’s worth keeping in mind the costs of voting “rights,” too often taken for granted, not exercised, or repressed by forces malevolent and ignorant.
While Lily develops particular relationships with August (who mothers her unconditionally) and June (whose need to be convinced of Lily’s trustworthiness is awkwardly hinted at in her apparent political activism, that is, her NAACP Youth Council t-shirt), Rosaleen finds solace and companionship with May. In the kitchen, they create a brilliant mutual support system, seemingly premised on traditional housekeeping roles, but expanding beyond stereotypes. It is May, so desperately empathic that she suffers physical as well as spiritual pain at others’ abuse and injury, who teaches Rosaleen to forgive Lily’s ignorance and teaches Lily to see beyond herself. And it is May’s wailing wall that signifies the timely and timeless need for such learning.