Caucasians, apparently, have no soul. Or heart. Or common sense. According to the movies, whenever the majority lacks a moment of personal clarity, they seek solace, advice, and sage-like wisdom from the groups they marginalized for centuries. As a result, some manner of karmic comeuppance is achieved. The latest example of this Bagger Vance-ing of inferred race relations is The Secret Life of Bees. Set in the percolating days of the Civil Rights Movement, this weepy feel-good sampling of you-go-girl saccharine has some real value. But it can't avoid the sugared-sap clichés that have helped to craft this particular motion picture subgenre.
Lily (Dakota Fanning) lives in rural South Carolina with her no-account abusive redneck daddy T. Ray (Paul Bettany) and the family housekeeper Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson). Her mother died when she was very young, and the circumstances have haunted the young girl ever since. When President Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act of 1964 into law, Rosaleen decides to register. In the process, she is assaulted, beaten, and arrested. In a moment of opportunity, she escapes the police, and takes Lily out on the run. They wind up in the care of the Boatwright sisters -- August (Queen Latifah), June (Alicia Keys), and May (Sophie Okonedo). Successful beekeepers, their safe haven gives Lily a chance to face the demons from the past and plot a course for the future. Article continues below
With its pleasant valley Sunday depiction of the South and numerous allusions to women as the superior societal species, The Secret Life of Bees is a manipulative quagmire of competing sentiments that literally sucks you in -- and not necessarily in a good way. Based on a bestselling novel by Sue Monk Kidd, and directed with sun-dappled drowsiness by Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball), this five-hanky artifice is like a soap opera splashed with moments of gooey grandeur. We don't really mind that this director is manipulating every single solid emotion out of us. It's just that, with a story set in this place and time, something more than forced feelings would have been nice.
This is a film saved by its interesting, often effective performances. Fanning is still having a hard time growing into her adolescent acting career. She seems a good two films away from finally making peace with post-pubescence. On the other hand, Hudson and Latifah are excellent, infusing the material with a sense of personal pride that helps balance out the occasionally cornball contrivances. There are scenes that work well here -- the aftermath of Hudson's beating at the hands of unrepentant racists, a tender moment between Lily and a young black man (Tristan Wilds). But then the none-to-subtle symbolism (May's rock wall of "lost souls," the Black Madonna) threatens to undo their value.
Of course, the bigger problem with something like The Secret Life of Bees is the flimsy fallout derived from that age-old clash between allegory and reality. Anyone looking for a realistic depiction of segregation amongst lapsed Confederates should probably hit the Discovery Channel. The racism here is utilized almost exclusively as metaphor -- for isolation, for self-awareness, for newfound dignity. However, if you don't mind a fairy tale founded in one of the most socially unsettled times in our past, then what Prince-Bythewood is selling will go down smoother than the Boatwrights' sticky sweet amber honey.
Some 44 years later, it's nice to think ("think," remember) that times have changed, that the always blustery white race has comprehended the error of its back-of-the-bus ways and settled into a state of supposed ethnic equality. If you believe that sentiment, then you'll find The Secret Life of Bees refreshing and heartfelt. If not, then avoid this maudlin pap all together.