In The Secret Life of Bees, a young black voting-rights activist (Alicia Keys) expresses one of the paradoxes of Southern racism in 1964: that white bigots hate black people, even though so many were raised by African-American nannies and domestics. The Secret Life of Bees acknowledges that double standard even while it demonstrates another one. Most Hollywood movies tend to depict the African-American historical perspective from a white point of view, particularly in Dixie.
Dakota Fanning plays Lily Owen, a motherless 14-year-old girl in a small Southern town. In an early scene, Lily and the family housekeeper, Rosaleen (Dreamgirls' Oscar-winning Jennifer Hudson), tune in to the black-and-white TV to see Lyndon Johnson's announcement of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The legislation sends shockwaves through the Jim Crow South, and Lily watches as white bigots beat Rosaleen for attempting to register to vote.
The film's civil rights-era texture serves as a backdrop to Lily's personal problems. Haunted by her mother's death and raised by a hateful father (Paul Bettany), Lily runs away from home and brings Rosaleen along to track down clues about the mother she never knew. The pair make their way to a South Carolina bee farm operated by three sisters, motherly August (Queen Latifah), proud June (Keys) and childlike April (Hotel Rwanda's Sophie Okonedo).
Writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood's adaptation of the book by Georgia-born novelist Sue Monk Kidd touches on the rural South's social complexities, including the dynamic between middle-class African-Americans and poor, uneducated ones like Rosaleen. Hudson and Keys both deliver compelling performances as strong-willed women who chafe against societal constraints. Rosaleen tries to rise above the oppressive qualities of poverty and illiteracy, while June balks at marrying the man she loves because it would compromise her independence.
Primarily, the film dramatizes Lily's coming of age as her various surrogate mothers teach her to stand up for herself, explore her spiritual side through the story of the black Virgin Mary, and discover her attraction to boys, particularly ambitious young Zach (The Wire's Tristan Wilds). As Lily's father, Bettany captures the seething frustrations (not to mention the Southern accent) so well, I didn't recognize the English actor until the closing credits. In a memorable detail, the father uses grits as an abusive disciplinary tool. He forces Lily to kneel with bare kneecaps on uncooked grits, which causes the hard grains to dig into her skin and draw blood.
Fanning again proves she has the presence and versatility of a performer beyond her years, and promises to have a Jodie Foster-esque career once her child-actor days have passed. In fact, Bees almost resembles a more upbeat do-over of the unjustly unreleased film Hounddog, notorious for a rape scene involving Fanning's underage character. Both small-town Southern period pieces take place during historical turning points and feature deceased mothers, unpleasant fathers, saintly African-Americans and holy fools. Okonedo offers a lovely portrayal as May, whose high spirits always fall when faced with ugly conflicts. Hotel Rwanda's Oscar-nominated actress cannot, however, keep May from seeming like anything but a stock character.
Latifah proves an innately likeable performer but doesn't flesh out her character into a woman with her own desires and frustrations. Instead, August comes across as so sunny, protective and bland that the half-realized role becomes the very cliché you suspect the filmmakers wanted to avoid. As if Latifah set the mood, so much optimism suffuses the film, and the cars and clothes look so new, that the schmaltz glosses over the plot's tragic turns. The soundtrack's contemporary songs (including one by Keys) similarly serve to make the film's history feel more distant. Sweet to a fault, The Secret Life of Bees ultimately smothers its edgy themes in a honeyed glow.