The Secret Life of Bees

Being “moved” was a topic I chatted about with two women waiting in line with me to see the sub-par The Secret Life of Bees at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. It seemed like everyone I talked to was eager to find a special film with which they could emotionally connect and actually feel something. This was a film that seemed tailor-made to realize those wishes, but it unfortunately did not deliver on the promise that was indicated by the trailers.

Let me first say that I desperately wanted to love this movie. I had been excited to see this adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd’s 2002 novel of the same name since I heard about the powerhouse casting of Queen Latifah, Sophie Okonedo and musician Alicia Keys in the key roles of the Boatwright sisters, and Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson tackling her first big dramatic part since scoring a statuette (no, Sex and the City doesn’t count). Films with predominantly African American female casts are almost anomalies, even in 2008. So the prospect of seeing so many authoritative, talented black women working together onscreen was virtually intoxicating for someone like me who lives for seeing quality roles for actresses. Add to this the fact that it was actually being made by a female director, Gina Prince-Blythewood (Love & Basketball), and it sounded like a dream come true.

With an abundance of feminine energy that centered on a uniquely successful family of all-girl entrepreneurs, educators and all-around pillars of their community in the South, this was a tale that hadn’t really been told before. With the divergent perspectives of the sisters, the Black Mary’s dominance in this Gospel as universal mothering figure, and the powerful symbolism of the queen bee, this project seemed a slam dunk. Sadly, the finished product is more of a muddled, neutered story that was stripped of its feminist overtones and watered down for mass consumption. What could have been a brave film turned out lukewarm, lost in its own self-importance, struggling to find a filmic identity.

Unfortunately, one could count on two hands the number of movies made in the last 20 years that exclusively celebrate the full experience of African American women, with predominantly black casts and fewer still actually succeed artistically (Jonathan Demme’s Beloved and Kasi Lemmons’ Eve’s Bayou are two of them, in my book); a point that was driven home by the moderator Elvis Mitchell (host of TCM’s Under the Influence) during a special press conference with the entire cast and director.

This seems to be a ticket-buying audience that is both historically underrepresented and not courted properly by Hollywood, so it makes it extremely regrettable that Bees tries so hard to be winning, but falls so flat; mainly due to overly-sentimental direction, a scattered script with maybe one too many “big” ideas, and the fact that the material revolves around four capable, intelligent black female characters going out of their way to help, nurture and love a white runaway who complicates their lives in the most dire ways. There is still a long, long way to go until our great actresses of color get the kind of quality material they deserve, and they cannot be held to blame for this utter fiasco – each woman works wonders in their own special way with what they are given, yet when all roads lead back to Dakota (Fanning, the star), there are a few problematic red flags raised that kill any substance or magic that might have existed on the page – and all those little red flags are rather distracting.

The film begins with a four-year-old Lily watching her mother getting roughed up by her rube of a father as she is furiously trying to leave. The vantage point is from the closet, where Lily is hidden. Her mother grabs a gun, which slides over to the child. She picks it up and fires, accidentally killing her mother with a single shot. In the next scene, which starts out promising enough, the wan, depressed Lily is a 14-year-old who sees swarms of imaginary bees in her room. Deluded, she likens herself to the Virgin Mary with a far away look in her eyes as an inane voice-over lets us hear her inner monologue which obsesses over, you got it, bees.

The year is 1964 and Lyndon Johnson is on the television talking about the Civil Rights Act and urging African American citizens to vote, which pleases Lily’s caretaker/maid/friend Rosaleen (Hudson, who is officially cornering the market on playing into a modern mammy stereotype after this). Lily’s nasty, greasy father T. Ray (a hammy Paul Bettany) refuses to talk about her mother at all, and gets violent when Lily asks to hear a story about her for her birthday present.

Late at night, she sneaks out to uncover a box of her mother’s belongings that she has buried in a peach orchard, so her father won’t find out, and talks to the dead woman. On this particular night, her father discovers her, and surmises that the girl has been promiscuous. As punishment, she is forced to kneel in grits on the kitchen floor and is deemed a whore.

Rosaleen, for her birthday, has prepared a cake and a visit to town to buy Lily her first bra, or so she tells Lily’s father: the real reason is so she can register to vote. In one of the film’s more daring scenes, Rosaleen is harassed, beaten and eventually arrested by rednecks that provoke her by calling her “nigger”. The audacious scene is very well-played by a commanding Hudson, who summons a furious anger with ease that absolutely cements her dramatic promise. The versatile performer called her research on the period and her character “terrifying. I wanted to go as deep as I possibly could and it didn’t take that much work to find her.” She pointed out that had she been alive during this time, this would have likely been her reality.

Lily comes running to the hospital, where Rosaleen lays tied up, waiting to be taken to jail (or worse); badly injured after being savagely beaten. The two take to the road, which is where the real story begins. They wind up at the “Caribbean Pink”, stately home of August Boatwright, a sweet, generous purveyor of “Black Madonna” honey, mostly on a whim of Lily’s after she spots a jar in a store window. Her sisters, June and May (Keys and Okonedo — yes, they are all named after months) have their trepidations, but August insists on letting the ladies sleep on the property and work for their room and board.

Amidst terrible, inappropriate music by contemporary adult lite-FM singers, which is complete baloney for a film about the experiences of black women in the 60s, heavy-handed (though well-intentioned) speeches about propriety, tolerance, and love are handed out in such rapid-fire, saccharine succession that viewers might actually be in danger of their teeth rotting. That the material, on paper, is so rich and thematically complex makes the dumbing-down even worse as it could have been a magnificent film.

Predictably, Lily becomes infatuated with The Boatwright’s employee Zack (Tristan Wilds), which brings us to the first of many clichéd scenes of dripping honey – this first one sadly, disgustingly features these two characters goofing around while bottling honey, and as it drips over the rims of the jars (because they aren’t really paying attention to what they’re doing), they giggly lick it from their fingers while staring oddly at one another.

It’s a really uncomfortable, poorly edited, oddly-sexualized moment for everyone involved. And yes, there is, I’m sorry to report, more than one scene of honey being licked off of fingers. The audience I saw the film with snickered, jeered, laughed out loud and were even talking on their phones during most of this rubbish.

The single saving grace of the film comes in the form of the performances by Hudson, Keys, Latifah, and Okonedo. Each woman gives a singularly capable performance, but in no way does this excuse the actual quality of the film overall, nor does it validate the film’s seeming wish to be ultra-important and its attempts to tie itself intrinsically to the current political landscape. If anything the game performances show off the glaring flaws even more.

“What most attracted me to it was the amount of love,” said the appropriately regal Queen Latifah. Latifah is a formidable player, no matter what medium she is working in. She’s adept at comedy, she can do drama (check her out in HBO’s Life Support if you want to be blown away), and she can even act while singing (1998’s underrated Living Out Loud). “She only has to go to places of love; she doesn’t have to stretch that far. I could live inside August for a few months and feel comfortable. And these were my sisters on and off set. And I was fascinated by how bees serve the queen.”

Here, she plays the family matriarch to the best of her abilities, but is let down by the weak directorial vision and a script that doesn’t really do anything other than hint at her past of being, you guessed it, a “nanny”. There is a scene where August explains the myth of the Black Madonna to Lily and Rosaleen that had so much dramatic potential that was killed by being far too overwrought. It’s puzzling that the director would settle for such mediocrity in a scene that calls for pathos.

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.