dvd review: THE SECRET OF LIFE BEES

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There were two major factors working against The Secret Life of Bees that had me more than a bit apprehensive about watching it. First there was the predominantly female ensemble cast that had me concerned this would be nothing more than the standard “Chick Flick,” cut from the same cloth as countless movies made for Lifetime or Oxygen. Call me an insensitive brute, but I’ve never been able to get in touch with my feminine side enough to appreciate estrogen-soaked tearjerkers of the Ya-Ya sisterhood. My other, even stronger apprehension was that The Secret Life of Bees would be another entry in the beloved “Magical Negro” genre made popular in the 1960s by films like Lilies of the Field and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and have continued with films like The Green Mile and Seven Pounds. The Magical Negro movie is one where a black character, through wisdom, strength, humor, stoicism or any combination of the aforementioned, manages to make life better for white character. Sidney Poitier was the King of the Magical Negro film, and most of his films were great. But recent entries into the somewhat tired and played out genre—films like The Legend of Bagger Vance—have bordered on being total crap. And it was with that in mind that I was not too sure if I wanted to watch The Secret Life of Bees.

Adapted from the novel by Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees takes place in South Carolina during the summer of 1964. The Civil Rights movement is heating up, with outbreaks of violence all over the South, and President Johnson has just signed the Civil Rights Act into law. Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning) is a sad 14 year-old girl living with the guilt of having accidentally killed her mother ten years earlier. Lily’s father, T. Ray (Paul Bettany) is a bitter man still resentful that his wife was leaving him when she was killed. The closest thing Lily has to a mother is Rosaleen Daise (Jennifer Hudson), who is equal parts housekeeper, friend and nanny. When Rosaleen takes a serious beating after running afoul of local racists while she is trying to register to vote, Lily decides it is time for the two of them to escape. With no particular place to go, Lily heads to the town of Tiburon, a name she only knows because it is written on one of her mother’s few possessions. Among those possessions is an old label for Black Madonna Honey, which Lily is convinced must hold some clue as to who her mother was.

The owners of Black Madonna Honey are the Boatwright sisters, matriarch August (Queen Latifah), stern and guarded June (Alicia Keys), and simple but loving May (Sophie Okonedo), who live in a large pink house on a huge parcel of land. Lily and Rosaleen take refugee with the Boatwrights, but refrain from telling them the truth about where they came form or where they’re going. With open arms from August and May, and more than a little uncertainty from June, Lily and Rosaleen quickly become part of the daily routine. August takes Lily under her wing, and begins to teach her about raising bees and making honey, and most important, she helps the teenager begin the long process of healing from the traumatic loss of her mother. But when a romance begins to blossom between Lily and Zach (Tristan Wilds), August’s godson, the ugly reality of Southern racism crashes down on everyone.

It would be easy to dismiss The Secret Life of Bees as both a Chick Flick and a Magical Negro tale, and on certain levels the film is exactly both of those things. But at the same time the movie transcends the trappings that make both of those types of films so unbearable. The other risk run by the film is glossing over the harsh truth of Southern racism in 1964, making The Secret Life of Bees a bit too much of a Civil Rights Fairy Tale, which is common offshoot of the Magical Negro tale. And while the film is not a bare-knuckle look at the racism of the times, it also does not turn a blind eye, carefully hitting enough notes to remind the audience of the bitter truths lurking just beyond the pink walls of the Boatwright household.

Much of the credit for the success of The Secret Life of Bees must go to director and screenwriter Gina Prince-Bythewood, who keeps the film from degenerating into the conventions that could have easily made this film an unwatchable jumble of syrupy sentimental clichés. Yes, this is a sweet film, meant to make you feel good. And yes, it does not focus that much on the ugly truth of the racist times in which it set. But that’s not what the book was about, and thankfully, it’s not what the movie is about either. Instead, this is a story about hope and forgiveness and finding a place in the world when it seems like there is nowhere to fit it. Movies that tackle this subject matter often fail, sliding down a slippery slope of eye-rolling melodrama and gag-inducing histrionics that cater to a more unsophisticated audience. Thankfully, The Secret Life of Bees manages to find that precarious balance of having the emotional resonance to evoke a response from a quick-to-cry audience, without dumbing itself down to the point it insults the intelligence of those who don’t want to be pandered to.

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