The Secret Life Of Bees


Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

The Secret Life Of Bees
"The film is even-handed... but I did feel like I was simultaneously having my heartstrings pulled and being lectured on female empowerment in African-American history."

The film version of Sue Monk Kidd’s best-selling novel has generated ‘controversy’ by featuring the first on-screen kiss for child star Dakota Fanning but, in truth, it’s a small part of a moving and interesting look at an aspect of the Civil Rights struggle that hasn’t always been well-served in the cinema.

Fanning plays Lily, a young girl growing up on her father’s peach farm in the still bitterly-divided South Carolina of the early Sixties. In addition to the troubles around her, she’s haunted by her family’s dark past – during a violent quarrel when her mother tried to leave, Lily picked up her father’s gun and accidentally shot her - and dreams of escape, symbolised by the bees that swarm around her in her dreams, but never sting.

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Her father, T Ray (Paul Bettany) has also been changed by his wife’s death. He keeps his daughter on a tight rein, punishes her cruelly for the slightest disobedience, and when their housekeeper Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson) is beaten up by rednecks on the way to exercise her newly-granted right to vote, refuses to take her side.

Disgusted with him, Lily decides to run away, taking Rosaleen with her. She has no clear idea of where to go, but among her mother’s possessions is a picture of a black Madonna. Inquiring at a nearby town, she discovers it’s the label for a local brand of honey, produced on a farm run by three sisters: matriararchal, businesslike August (Queen Latifah); independent, politically committed June (Alicia Keys); and innocent, vulnerable May (Sophie Okonedo ).

Lily turns up at the farm, spinning a yarn to explain her and Rosaleen’s situation, and both are taken on to work there by August, despite June’s suspicions. August quickly discovers the truth about Lily who, in turn, learns of her mother’s connection to the farm. She and Rosaleen grow to love their new family and the people who use the farm as a centre for the town’s African-American community. Among them are Neil, (Nate Parker), a young teacher and political campaigner in love with June and Zachary (Tristan Wilds), August’s teenage godson and the purveyor of the aforementioned kiss. All seems very idyllic, but the Civil Rights movement is causing tension in the town – and T Ray is on his daughter’s trail...

It’s refreshing to see a Civil Rights movie that doesn’t focus on the violence of the struggle, but instead shows how the compassionate, inclusive spirit represented by the sisters (as well as their success in business and standing in the community as a whole) played an equally strong role in overturning centuries of prejudice. But in stressing the positivity of this literal sisterhood, and the happiness they bring to Lily by providing her first real family, Bythewood turns them into symbols rather than flesh-and-blood characters. Put another way, they seem to good to be true. This is particularly so in the case of May, too good for the world and taking all its sufferings on herself. Her agonies when Zachary is attacked by rednecks and goes missing seemed very manipulative to me, another example of the film telling me exactly what I should think and feel.

But Okonedo’s performance, like all the others, is striking, investing a character in danger of being a mere cipher with lots of telling human touch. Even Bettany takes what could have been a stereotypical bad guy role and instead offers a vivid portrait of a tormented soul, as much imprisoned by his history as any of the African-American characters, but ironically less able to break free from it.

And the film is even-handed in portraying many other white characters as being far more than racist reactionaries. It’s well-made, well-acted, undeniably moving in places and a telling reminder of a time in the not-so-distant past when a huge number of Americans were literally treated as second-class citizens. But I did feel like I was simultaneously having my heartstrings pulled and being lectured on female empowerment in African-American history. Simply using a strong story to let the facts of a pivotal era speak for themselves would have made for a much more satisfying film.

Reviewed on: 02 Dec 2008
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The Secret Life Of Bees packshot
A young girl, escaping from her tyrannical father in Civil Rights era South Carolina, finds a very different surrogate family.
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Read more The Secret Life Of Bees reviews:

Mike Davies ***

Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood

Writer: Gina Prince-Bythewood, based on the novel by Sue Monk Kidd

Starring: Queen Latifah, Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Hudson, Alicia Keys, Sophie Okonedo, Paul Bettany

Year: 2008

Runtime: 110 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US


London 2008

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