“It’s amazing how they hate us so much when so many of them are raised by black women.” That’s a line spoken by a black woman in “The Secret Life of Bees,” circa 1964 in South Carolina.
This was the year U.S. President Lyndon Johnson put his signature on the Civil Rights Act, and though it marked a crucial point in American history, this film suggests how it had little or no effect on the lives of black people living in the Deep South. In one scene, a black girl watches the event on TV, and, barely able to contain her excitement, walks 6 km into town to become a registered voter. On the way she’s beaten and then arrested because she didn’t apologize to the white man who rammed his fist into her face.
Hatred and malice abounded, but as is amply demonstrated in the story, many white people just could not survive in the world without support and nurturing from African Americans. What the blacks thought about this setup is something that’s briefly but effectively explored.
Based on the novel by Sue Monk Kidd (herself a South Carolina native) and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, “The Secret Life of Bees” revolves around the black-woman/white-child dynamic. Thankfully, it’s less Big Mammie/Scarlett O’Hara than Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller. In this case, the black woman is strong and professional in her dealings with the child, and the child — a prickly girl who has spent her entire her life feeling unloved and bears a huge grudge because of it — heals old wounds and recovers under her tutelage.
Dakota Fanning plays 14-year-old Lily, daughter of tyrannical, abusive single dad “T. Ray” (Paul Bettany). T. Ray doesn’t seem to notice that his daughter never eats (though she must cook his meals), is bone thin and miserable. Their dingy house is looked after by black housekeeper Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson), who’s not much older than Lily but has the kindness to bake her a birthday cake, which Lily eats with her bare hands, squatting on top of the stove in shorts that look as though she outgrew them two years ago.
The root cause of Lily’s misery is her mother, who died when she was 4 in a shooting accident, caused by Lily herself. Dakota Fanning displays her considerable talent at petulant, early-teen angst undercut with guilt; Lily droops like a wilting flower in a scrubby flower pot left in the shed to die. But one day the girl musters up the energy to escape, dragging Rosaleen with her. Their destination is Tiburon, the (fictional) town where Lily’s mother had lived before her marriage.
From here on, “The Secret Life” takes on the tone of an Deep South fairy tale, complete with a fairy godmother in the form of the gorgeously majestic August Boatwright (Queen Latifah). Lily and Rosaleen happen upon August’s cute, sugar-pink house and it’s love at first sight. (“I feel like I just have to be here!” says Lily.) Strangely immune to the harsh winds of racial discrimination that rage outside her lush, 11-hectare stretch of land, August operates a honey business (aptly named “Black Madonna Honey”) with her two sisters, May (Sophie Okonedo) and June (Alicia Keys). Approaching the house, Lily hears strains from a Bach concerto from June’s cello and the smell of pancakes from May’s immaculate kitchen. “I’ve never met any black women like you three” confides Lily to August, and we can well believe it.
In many ways, “Secret Life” is another in a series of life-affirming, female-empowering stories that Queen Latifah has starred in throughout her acting career (one exception is “Chicago”), and surely must be a little tired of. But director Prince-Bythewood (to her immense credit) highlights August’s deep reluctance — sometimes subtle, sometimes not — to take the needy and precarious Lily into her life and saddle herself with a host of new responsibilities. The film captures her dilemma beautifully, and when she makes that springboard decision to care for Lily, we can believe it’s simply because she has come to like the girl. Or is that wishful thinking?