In adapting Sue Monk Kidd's best-selling novel about women forging bonds across racial lines in the segregated South, writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood has created a new genre: the genteel melodrama. The personal and political were inexorably fused in 1964, and Prince-Bythewood makes The Secret Life of Bees about confronting anger and brutality with calm resolve and self-awareness, a kind of internalization of the civil rights movement's principle of nonviolent resistance.
On the eve of her 14th birthday, Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning) is watching President Lyndon Johnson on television with her family's housekeeper Rosaleen Daise (Jennifer Hudson) as he announces the signing of the Civil Rights Act. For that moment, it feels like institutionalized oppression might be lifted overnight, but that euphoria will be short-lived. As much as Secret Life is about individual bravery, Kidd's tale swiftly punishes anyone who dares openly challenge the powers that be.
In swift strokes, Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball) paints Lily's unhappy life at a peach farm with her loutish father T. Ray (Paul Bettany), the bond she's formed with Rosaleen, and her longing for a mother whose death she feels responsible for. When Rosaleen is beaten by a group of white men for trying to register to vote, the overlooked, undervalued Lily takes action, fleeing Georgia with her best friend and heading for Tiburon, S.C., the locale written on an image of the Black Madonna in her late mother's belongings.
They find an Eden in (the fictional) Tiburon: the soothing hot pink residence of the Boatwright sisters, surrounded by 28 acres of sun-drenched woodland where an apiary is situated. The coolly commanding August (Queen Latifah) runs the honey business and takes in these two strays — to the chagrin of the strident June (Alicia Keys), a cellist and music teacher. The childlike May (Sophie Okonedo) eagerly accepts these new companions, and her immense empathy makes her aware that they may be traveling light, but they carry heavy baggage.
Prince-Bythewood's muted approach has the overall effect of stunting the big emotional upheavals and makes Secret Life feel like a well-intentioned throwback. But within her framework, the filmmaker finds some great moments, including a staggering scene between Fanning and Latifah, who sagely explains the "complicated" love of black caregivers.
Like Ulee's Gold (1997), The Secret Life of Bees presents the apiarist as a healer for a chaotic world, finding peace in the quiet cultivation of an ancient sweetness.
Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.