Posted: 10/19/2008


The Secret Life of Bees


by Elaine Hegwood Bowen

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The Secret Life of Bees has an ensemble cast of African American women, with young superstar Dakota Fanning mixed in for flavor.

Alicia Keys, Sophie Okonedo and Queen Latifah play June, May and August Boatwright, respectively, with Academy Award-winner Jennifer Hudson rounding out the cast.

The screenplay is based on a book of the same name and is set during a volatile time— the Civil Rights Era, 1964 South Carolina.

The eccentric Boatwright sisters own a Bee farm that produces Black Madonna Honey, and the plot is as sweet and syrupy as the honey produced on the women’s 28-acre estate.

Latifah as August is the older sister; Okonedo as May is a sweet, innocent soul whose life has been fraught with grief since her twin April died; and Keys as June, the militant voting rights activist, independent sort who seems lonely, even though she’s being courted for marriage by Neil, played by Nate Parker.

The story develops wings as Fanning and Hudson (who works as Fanning’s housekeeper) escape and run off trying to uncover the secrets of Lily’s (played by Fanning) mother. It doesn’t help that Rosaleen, played by Hudson, has just disrespected a white man and is severely beaten and detained in the local hospital (sort of like Sofia in The Color Purple).

Lily breaks Rosaleen out of the hospital and while discussing the event, she questions why Rosaleen didn’t apologize. Rosaleen tells her, “Apologizing to those men would have been a different way of dying.”

Lily places much credence on a card with a Black Madonna on it, and she believes this will help in the search for details about her mother’s life. She narrates in the beginning how she killed her mother; and it’s later detailed that this was a sad accident that haunts Lily, at age 14.

When they arrive in South Carolina, they are both impressed and question how Negro women can be so rich and so cultured. Lily quickly concocts a story to offer the Boatwright sisters, without letting on that Rosaleen is a fugitive and that she’s run away from her abusive father.

It does seem as if the Boatwright estate, painted in bright “Pepto Bismol” pink, is off in another land somewhere.

“It’s on a spot in the world where the outside don’t come in,” August says. She also offers up some “bee yard etiquette” that could just as well be geared toward people in general: “Don’t be afraid, Don’t be an idiot, Don’t swat and Send the bees love.”

While Keys, Latifah and Hudson play great roles, Okonedo steals the show, as she channels from deep within to portray her role as a fragile, nurturing spirit, overtaken by crying spells when things get too ugly and tough to bear. She’s created a wailing wall of stones that she retreats to and writes down her problems, as if to lay them all down for a higher being to work out.

Okonedo is the British actress who also played Tatiana Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda and Juliette in Dirty, Pretty Things, and she’s splendid!

Some of the events in the movie seem unbelievable, though; Lily and Rosaleen hitching a ride with an elderly Black man, as they make their way to South Carolina. That seemed so risky at the time.

Another scene when Lily goes to the movies with Zack, a young Black teen played by Tristan Wilds, also seems out of place. They have already flirted with one another, after an instant chemistry is sparked when they meet. They proceed to boldly sit in the balcony together—grant it, this is 1964 in the Deep South—and Zack is beaten up because of this. Consequently May finds this too unbearable.

“I brought the inside in here,” Lily sadly proclaimed, after the dust settles around her and Zack’s brave “sit-in” at the movies.

The dots are connected regarding the association between Lily’s mother and August; her father comes to fetch her, but since Lily has been hanging around with the “sistahs,” she’s newly empowered to speak up to him, saying she’s going nowhere.
Some may consider The Secret Life of Bees just another “chick flick,” but for me it was a good history lesson, with the recently signed Civil Rights Act of 1964, as a backdrop. It also serves as a great primer on the beekeeping business; and those who remember a more peaceful time will love the family gatherings and soundtrack that accompanies the movie; as Keys portrays a music teacher and plays the cello throughout.

The Secret Life of Bees is written by Gina Prince-Bythewood, of Love & Basketball, Biker Boyz and Drumline fame, and Jada Pinkett-Smith serves as a co-producer.

Elaine Hegwood Bowen is a veteran public relations and journalism professional and former journalism professor. She’s publicist for her daughter, Hip-Hop artist Psalm One. A native Chicago South Sider, Elaine was a recent University of Maryland Bio Ethics, Health Disparities & Clinical Trials Fellow and winner of a Black Press Messenger Award.

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