Thursday, May 07, 2009

The Secret Life of Bees

In The Secret Life of Bees (2008) a young white girl, troubled by her cold and indifferent father and by her memory of having accidentally killed her mother when she was four, seeks shelter and solace from a group of black women in rural South Carolina in 1964. Based on the novel of the same title (which I have not read), the film reminded me especially of Toni Morrison's Paradise, also about a group of independent black women living on their own in a hostile setting (and to a lesser extent Song of Solomon). Whereas Morrison lets us know from an early point that her characters are headed for tragedy, The Secret Life of Bees makes clear from the start that amidst tragic memories and the unhappiness that is to occur there will be heartwarming moments, tenderness, sentimentality, a lack of realism, plot holes, and a story and characters that hold our interest and whom we come to care about.

This film reminded me of Eve's Bayou (1997), also about black women—some old and some young—trying to survive in a world of male betrayal.

The story is told through the eyes of the fourteen-year-old white girl Lily (Dakota Fanning). Although her own life is an interesting one—she wants to be a writer, she has a dream in which bees swarm into her room at night, and she is in the middle of puberty—she is mainly an observer through whom the more interesting story of the Boatwright women is told. They are three sisters, the oldest of whom inherited a farm from her grandmother, and they raise bees and manufacture highly prized honey, which makes them a comfortable living. The sisters are named for the months of the year. Their house is the color of Pepto-Bismol. It is nicely furnished, and their farm exists in a kind of isolation from the racist white South and the rest of the world.

The Boatwrights sell their honey in a bottle labeled with an image of a black Virgin Mary. It turns out the women worship an old wooden figure of a black Virgin, an old masthead that washed up on the beaches of Virginia a hundred years in the past, and which one of their ancestors found and brought home with him after (he believed) it spoke to him. The women believe that the figure gives them strength when they touch the image of the heart painted on her breast.

A number of interwoven plots keep this film going and also weigh it down. There is the story of Lily, of course. Each of the sisters has her own story. June (Alicia Keys) is in love with a man from the local town, but she doesn't for reasons that remain unclear want to marry him. She is active in the local NAACP and resents Lily's appearance. She's beautiful and distant and plays the cello. Another is May (Sophie Okonedo) , whose twin sister died some years before, leaving her in a constant state of mental distress—whenever anything bad happens to someone, she weeps uncontrollably. She has built a stone wall in the back of the house where she inserts pieces of paper on which she writes prayers or short inscriptions about bad events. And there is August, played by Queen Latifah, the oldest sister, who runs the farm and to whom Lily turns for advice. There is also Roseleen Daise (Jennifer Hudson), who worked as a servant for Lily's father. When she walks with Lily to town, she is accosted by a group of white men who yell insults, and when Roseleen pours snuff juice on the shoes of an especially hateful man, he beats her. Lily and Roseleen run away and make their way to Tiburon, a small town whose name Lily found on a memento of her mother's.

Very early in the film a connection between the bees of which Lily dreamed, her mother, and the bee farm of the Boatwrights becomes evident. The nature of this connection is made fairly clear well before the film explains it outright—whether this is intentional or not I don't know. Maybe we in the audience are supposed to recognize what Lily herself doesn't recognize so that we can watch with anticipation as she gradually makes the connections herself.

There is also a Civil Rights theme. Lily finds herself attracted to a young man who is friends of the Boatwrights. They work on the farm together, share a couple of kisses, and inexplicably he drives her into town to deliver honey and then invites her to go to a film in a theatre where whites and blacks still sit in separate sections. He is accosted and dragged off by a group of angry white men, and for a time it looks as if he is going to be found dead. This event leads to tragedy.

It is perhaps understandable why 14-year-old Lily would not recognize the danger of sitting in the black section of a segregated theater with her black friend. But he certainly should have realized the danger to himself—he is older than she and intelligent and well educated. When he is dragged away, we know Lily is going to blame herself for whatever is to happen.

The Civil Rights era theme and time period do create some problems for the film, however. Would black women such as the Boatwrights have been allowed to live unmolested in rural white South Carolina in 1964, especially given their relative affluence and forward thinking attitudes? Only a year later in Mississippi, three civil rights workers—two young white men and one young black man—would be murdered by white racists. Only three years before in Birmingham, Alabama, four young girls were killed in a church bombing carried out by white racists. Were things that different in rural South Carolina in 1954? It's also difficult to imagine that the young man hauled out of the segregated theater by white racists would be allowed to escape with only a beating for sitting with a young white girl in the balcony reserved for "coloreds." This film wants to make clear its awareness of the difficult times in which the action is taking place, but it wants to pretend that its main characters are less affected by those times than in reality they probably would have been.

It's also clear that, no matter how positive a figure August is as played by Queen Latifah, there is clearly a dimension of the stereotyped black Mammy about her, as she readily agrees to take care of the poor white girl in distress and offers various wise homilies and lessons to her, helping her, even in the midst of her own grief, to come to terms with her mother's death ten years before. It's worth pointing out the improbability of the situation the film portrays—a 14-year old white girl on her own in rural South Carolina in the company of a somewhat older black woman who shows clear signs of having been beaten up. Would they have been allowed to go on their way unmolested? Probably not. There is the slightest possibility that people such as the Boatwrights could have existed and made a living for themselves on their farm. That is one point of the film, the improbable nature of the story itself, and of Lily's managing to find the Boatwrights as she does. Improbability itself is part of the interest of the story.

(Roger Ebert aptly captures the film's implausibility in his review: "As a realistic portrayal of life in rural South Carolina in 1964, 'The Secret Life of Bees is dreaming. As a parable of hope and love, it is enchanting. Should it have been painful, or a parable?" Ebert settles for parable, admitting that if this had been a "bad" film then he would have willingly dissected it. A. O. Scott in the New York Times observes, "It would be wrong to say that the troubles of that time and place have been wished away — on the contrary, the movie begins with a scene of horrific domestic violence and includes child abuse, a racially motivated beating, suicide and the threat of a lynching — but from the opening voice-over to the final credits, every terror and sorrow is swaddled in warm, therapeutic comfort.")

The author of the novel on which the film is based is Sue Monk Kidd, a white woman who was growing up during the time period of the film. The screenplay author and director is Gina Prince-Bythewood, an African-American. Had a white director and screen writer made this film about black women and largely black situations, told mainly through the eyes of a white narrator, they would likely have been accused of stereotyping their subject. With an African American woman director and screen writer, the film has more credibility and is less vulnerable to accusations that it is just another film that patronizes African Americans.

One other influence on the film is To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), based on Harper Lee's novel. There are certain similarities between the character Scout in that film and the somewhat older Lily in this one. Both are narrators, both are struggling to come of age, in a certain sense, both are struggling to understand and to accept their mother's death, whom they hardly remember. A minor character in Bees is a white liberal lawyer who reminds us, fleetingly, of Atticus Finch.

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