Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees might have been written with the calculation of getting chosen for Oprah's Book Club. (It wasn't, though it did make Good Morning America's reading list.) The 2002 novel is a coming-of-age story about a white girl, Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning), who flees her abusive father and, in the company of her black nanny Rosaleen, finds refuge and surrogate motherhood with three Afro-angelic sisters who run a bee farm. Why did Kidd, a white woman, choose these heroines? "I grew up surrounded by black women," she told one interviewer. "I feel they are like hidden royalty dwelling among us."
So Bees is another entry in the long tradition of books and movies about whites being nurtured and schooled by the example of the black underling. (You've heard of Huckleberry Finn? Gone With the Wind?) The novel is set in rural South Carolina in 1964, which is just about the time it would have automatically been turned into an Oscar-nominated movie. The obvious reference point is To Kill a Mockingbird, whose girl narrator, Scout Finch, is 6 to Lily's 14, and whose fictional setting is Maycomb, Ala., instead of Bees' Tiburon, S.C. But that was back when most big films tended to serious sentiment. Today, the dominant tone is irreverence, sarcasm, facetiousness. Can a time-capsule movie like this one have any resonance today? Can it find an audience to nurture in the old, noble, now-discredited Hollywood traditions?
I hope so, because adapter-director Gina Prince-Bythewood has made an honorable movie, wonderfully attentive to the skills of its excellent cast, that turned this devout cynic into a believer.
"I killed my mother when I was four years old," Lily says at the beginning of the film. "That's all I know about myself." For the past 10 years, she has been raised by been the prisoner of her father T. Ray (Paul Bettany), who runs a peach farm. Lily is dreamy, wistful, self-hating and suicidal; T. Ray is a sullen beast, punishing the girl by making her kneel on grits (coarse-ground corn meal, to those of you those of me who are ignorant of Southern cuisine). Lily has her own roiling karma. No question, she is bad luck for the people she loves. Two of them die violently, two more are attacked by racist whites. Lily wants to die too; and when she runs away and discovers the Caribbean-pink house of the three Boatwright sisters, it's as if she's died and gone to heaven.
August (Queen Latifah), who runs the bee farm, is the matriarch of the clan, beaming wisdom and common sense to a child voracious for any human touch. May (Brit actress Sophie Okonedo) has long been in mourning for her dead twin sister April. Her emotions are deep and constantly near the surface; she is given to weeping and keening when she sees the pain of others. June (Alicia Keys), a teacher, is the no-nonsense one. With her high forehead, Afro coiffure and commanding hauteur, she is a preview of militant black women like Kathleen Cleaver and Angela Davis and the least maternal of the Boatwright brood.
The film is full of sweet, subtle touches. In the book Lily daydreams of meeting her mother Deborah in heaven; and after 10,000 years telling Lily she was not to blame for her death, Deborah would spend the next 10,000 fixing the girl's ratty hair. ("She would brush it into such a tower of beauty, people all over heaven would drop their harps just to admire it.") The movie doesn't make a big declamatory deal of this, but after a few days with the Boatwrights, Lily looks magically presentable, pretty because for once she's been cared for.