The Secret Life of Bees is the sort of movie where racism functions as a hair-trigger undercurrent. The merest mention of race warrants explosive resentment, the equivalent of a bias-response sledgehammer reaching out of the theater screen and pursuing the genitals with extreme prejudice.
On second thought, The Secret Life of Bees is two sorts of movie. In addition to being a surprise racial polemic (yikes … never thought those words would ever appear in that order, much like “drive-by marriage proposal” or “accidental child molestation”), the movie is a heartwarming movie about coming-of-age womanhood. You know, where womanhood obviously means being overwrought, endlessly emotional and almost nihilistically driven to forge bonds of mother-daughterhood and sisterhood at any and all costs.
That’s perhaps a tad harsh. There is a third kind of movie The Secret Life of Bees aspires to be. All the gears are installed, all the puzzle pieces are in place. In fact, if one were to read the novel by Sue Monk Kidd, one would perhaps find a gorgeous Southern-set drama about the hazards of integration in practice, women bonding together to incite sisterhood and coming-of-age, and how the unifying strength of a beehive can be a metaphor for a better human society. The movie feels uneven in tone, an immature insect attempting to spread its wings all while buzzing its wings at the wrong frequency, like the cacophony of a locust swarm instead of a melodious spring honeybee.
This is the kind of movie that stars the undeniable presence that is Queen Latifah (Set it Off, Chicago) as August Boatwright, eldest sister of a trio of whimsical beekeeping sisters, three black women owning 28 acres in the segregated South of the 1960s. Despite that flimsy premise, Latifah is joined by the considerable talents of Sophie Okonedo (Hotel Rwanda) and R and B diva Alicia Keys (The Nanny Diaries) as May and June Boatwright. The Boatwright sisters come across Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning, who defies expectations and proves she sure as hell might have more to her than the hype) and her housekeeper, Rosaleen (played by Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson). Both are on the run from an abusive father (Paul Bettany, brilliant as usual) and brutal local racists. Lily’s bright idea was to run to Tiburon, South Carolina, the Boatwright sisters’ home, to get in touch with her past. She hides this fact out of fear, and of course, to inject some tension into the plot. Within a week, both Lily and Rosaleen are “part of the family,” even though June Boatwright is “upset” and “suspicious,” not to mention a little sour on white folks after her NAACP meetings. Lily even develops a crush on a young black boy her age named Zach, and this attraction leads not only to the expected coming-of-age scene that’ll have teenage girls swooning, but a racially-charged incident that only pulls philosophical punches, throwing every ounce of possible violence onscreen and then allowing it to dissipate.
The beginning, albeit melodramatic, held plenty of promise. So many questions rise up as we watch Lily make breakfast for her father, and then him eat it silently, chewing every bite as if grinding years of resentment. We watch a potentially horrifying scene where the father alludes to suspicions about Lily being sexually promiscuous (we doubt she even knows what he means), and then makes her kneel on a pile of grits until her knees turn bloody. These scenes of abuse sow a lot of backstory that is only barely explored near the movie’s end. The ugly subtlety of 1960s’ race politics is reduced to angry diatribes by Rosaleen and ridiculous mob scenes.
Ridiculous. What an awful word to use when describing a movie with such gorgeous cinematography and powerful acting performances from a diverse ensemble spanning age, continents, and cultural backgrounds. The theater audience laughed at all the humor in the movie, but laughed a whole lot during the rest of the movie as well. The tone is so jarring that potentially serious scenes involving May Boatwright, who is mentally handicapped, provided the most raucous, derisive laughter. Potentially charming scenes between Lily and Zach were played like an after school special, when they could have matched the blossoming youthful passions of a movie such as Man in the Moon. And, ever-present was the shadowed specter of race. Race comes up in the movie where it is unneeded, where the biggest focus is on humanity and universal human suffering and redemption. Why utter racial slurs, the words “white” and “black,” like casually fired shotgun rounds to pepper a scene? Like 2006’s Best Picture winner Crash, which compared L.A.’s frenetic cultural climate to inevitable auto collisions, The Secret Life of Bees convolutes a simple poignant observation with blunt unreality concerning our country’s racial tensions.