Bring Your Girlfriends, Sisters, Mothers and Daughters.
Black History Month/Feminist February continues with this spectacularly cast adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd’s novel of the same name. It’s a best-selling story that covers heavy subject matter – as you’d expect – so should come with a healthy warning.
The Secret Life of Bees (2008)
In 1964, a teenage girl in search of the truth about her mother runs away to a small town in South Carolina and finds a family of independent women who can connect her to her past.
TW: Violence against women, suicide detail
Lily (Fanning) lives with her father, T-Ray (Paul Bettany) on a peach farm in South Carolina. He is often angry and abusive towards his daughter who has just turned 14. When Lily was four, she tells us, she accidentally killed her mother in the middle of a violent domestic fracas. The pair have a housekeeper – Rosaleen (Hudson) – who seems to provide the only comfort and love that Lily really knows.
At night Lily sneaks into the yard and digs up a tin of her mother’s belongings which include a buttery pair of gloves and a photograph, which shows mum as a very beautiful young woman. In the stash is a label for something called “Black Madonna Honey” with the town name ‘Tiburon’ scribbled on the back. This item is intriguing to Lily, who is desperate for anything that will tell her a little bit about her mother. Incidentally, she also seems to have a casual affinity with bees.
Amid a horrible incident, involving Rosaleen – who’s hospitalised by three racists – and a furious row with her father, Lily decides to run away. She stops by the hospital to rescue Rosalee and the pair head for, you guessed it, Tiburon.
After two days on the road, Lily and Rosaleen reach the home of August Boatwright (Latifah) and her sisters, May (Sophie Okonedo) and June (Keys). August has made a business of bees and is the owner of Black Madonna Honey – she’s also the heart of a strong community of Black women, who she leads regularly in prayer. After fabricating a somewhat shaky backstory for August, Lily manages to swap labour for a place to stay for a while.
June is initially rather spiky towards the little white girl and you can’t really blame her for that. Besides she has her own shit going on with her boyfriend, who’s desperate to marry her. May, meanwhile is a sensitive soul who keeps track of all the little things that have distressed her with notes pinned to a ‘wailing wall’ (Where can I get one?!).
Things carry on in a fashion but the world in the sixties was not a just or understanding place and there are further devastating events sent to test the Boatwrights and Lily too.
What will come of her budding friendship with August’s assistant Zach? And will T-Ray finally locate his wayward daughter? That’s if he even cares enough to search.
This is a nice film and I wouldn’t have expected anything less. But it is a bit of a shame that the story has to center around a white character and her search for meaning. We know next to nothing about Rosaleen for instance and that’s such a shame – and waste of Jennifer Hudson’s acting chops. The Boatwright sisters are a million times more interesting than Lily too and I would have loved to have dug a little deeper into their story, as a trio and individually.
As it is there’s nothing wrong with Lily per se and her story is sad enough to stir a bit of emotion – particularly when she’s trying to emphathise with her father but it feels very much like the Black women in this community are doing all the emotional and physical work. I understand that as viewers we’re learning about the experiences of non-white people through Lily’s lense but it feels a little off. It’s a nice thought that a neglected child can turn to her three Black mothers for love and support – and a better future – but why should they have to do it?
Of course there’s a bit more to it than that and the story comes around full circle, as August and her sisters have more of a connection to Lily’s mother than she initially believes. And there are reasons for everything which will unfold if you choose to view this for yourself.
My only other criticism is: not enough bees.
MY RATING: 3.5/5