Thursday, October 23, 2008

London Film Festival Day 9 - THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES

THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES is a movie set in South Carolina in 1964 and features a cast full of famous African-American actresses. Queen Latifah, Alicia Keys and Sophie Okenodo play August, June and May Boatwright - three sisters that live in a beautiful house and make honey. They are affluent, cultured, strong and independent. This is so rare for the period, where Jennifer Hudson's abused house-made Rosaleeen is the norm, that the Boatwright family seem like something out of a fairy tale. Certainly this is how runaway Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning) sees them.

I had thought that a movie about a little white girl taking shelter with an African-American family would be a film about race. And superficially, it is. We get an early scene where Noraleen is beaten up for daring to register to vote. And later on, Lily's friend Zach will be abducted and beaten up for daring to go to a movie with a white girl. In the background, we can spy an Atticus-Finch-like lawyer, and Alicia Keys character - a feminist, activist member of the NAACP - screams for more screen-time as a representative of the social movements coming to the boil in the mid-60s. Now, that would have been an important and interesting movie.

But the dirty secret of THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES is that it's just not interested in investigating the reality of the ethnic minority experience in the 1960s. In fact, it falls victim to the same prejudice we have seen through the history of mainstream cinema, where ethnic minority issues are fit only as a framing device or context for the real meat of the story - which is all about the white characters. What THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES is *really* about is a dysfunctional father-daughter relationship. Lily Owens and her father T.Ray (Paul Bettany) have a violent, guilt-ridden relationship. T. Ray hates Lily and abuses her because he resents the fact that her mother loved her but didn't love him. Lily has to come to terms with the reality of her parents marriage and to learn how to empathise with her father. That's the real emotional journey of this film. And it has nothing to do with race.

Still, if you're looking for a soupy, schmaltzy, weepy sort of melodrama setting in a fairy-tale world of hot-pink houses and forever-sunshine, then THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES is at least nicely-shot, well-intentioned and well-acted, particularly by Dakota Fanning in the lead role.

THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES played Toronto and London 2008. It was released in the US last week and opens in Portugal on November 27th and in Germanhy on April 23rd.


  1. Hi Bina,

    I've been a fan since I read your In Prison My Whole Life review from last years London Film Festival.

    A friend works for a Woman's magazine invited me to a screening of Bees' must admit I hated the film.

    It's just another of those Black Folks save white peoples films. See Black Snake Moan & Green Mile add to that it's chock full of Southern "Good Ol Boy" cliches. As welll as being syrupy as hell, it was quite alright.

    Left a somewhat bitter taste in my mother.

    Black Narcissus

  2. Couldn't agree more, Black Narcissus!

  3. Are you guys kidding? I saw the movie last night and I thought it was one of the best ones!! It had a great message and really emphasized the meaning of discrimination and abuse. Acting was very real; it made me cry because it felt like it was actually happening.

  4. I want to see this! I am glad I read your review first. Thanks!