It's reasonable to approach "The Secret Life of Bees" with a degree of bewilderment. It is, after all, a year in which an African-American man and his African-American wife have a shot at moving into the White House. This movie takes a snapshot of life for three black sisters in 1964 taking care of a runaway white girl named Lily (Dakota Fanning). On its sweet, tear-jerking surface, the movie is a tired old Hollywood story: Girl meets mammy - OK, mammies. But that is merely the surface. The title is literal (Lily finds refuge on a honey farm) and something more.
This secret life also belongs to the women whom Hollywood has taken for granted since the inception of movies - the women a weepy Halle Berry actually acknowledged and cosmically thanked in her Oscar speech; the Hattie McDaniels, Ethel Waterses, and Pearl Baileys; this legacy of strength, struggle, sadness, sass, and service.
Adapted from Sue Monk Kidd's 2002 popular novel, "The Secret Life of Bees" attempts an expansion of the movies' social dynamics by acknowledging that these entertainers were politically aware human beings, too. Queen Latifah, Sophie Okonedo, Alicia Keys, and Jennifer Hudson play the women who are looking out for Lily, while the writer and director Gina Prince-Bythewood applies historical intelligence by having these characters react mostly in small and subtle ways to the racial climate around them.
After Congress passes the Civil Rights Act, Lily's maid, Rosaleen (Hudson), watches President Lyndon Johnson declare the bill a law on TV. Sitting next to Lily, she lets out a shocked expletive, and it's a powerful use of profanity, capturing the surprise of a momentous historical moment. Here "The Secret Life of Bees" begins to build its bridge between 44 years ago and now; next month, a lot of people might be sitting around TVs echoing a version of Rosaleen's astonishment.
Rosaleen is so galvanized by her new legal protections that she marches into town with Lily to register to vote. Racists cross their path and beat Rosaleen, who's arrested, hospitalized, and, rescued by Lily, who's on a mission of her own. She has just abandoned her South Carolina peach farm and her mean old daddy (Paul Bettany) to find out more about the mother she shot as a girl (it's nuts even after you've seen it yourself).
So the runaway and the fugitive hit the road. Hudson is not earth's most dynamic actor, but she has a tremendous presence, which is like charisma for serious church people.
Both Lily and Rosaleen wind up harbored at the big pink home of the Boatwright sisters, who reluctantly agree to let them stay in a shed designated for cultivating the Black Madonna honey the sisters harvest. June is suspicious of the white girl and her black-and-blue friend, who both, in turn, find these self-possessed sisters and their enormous house fascinating. But it's Rosaleen's fascination that feels new for the movies. A poor black girl from the country is seeing her first middle-class black family, and her mind is blown.
Sadly, Hudson spends most of the movie in the background - rocking in a chair on the Boatwright's porch, standing by their stove - while Lily explores her mamma drama, her mammy drama, and her attraction to Zach (Tristan Wilds), August's luscious godson who helps with the honey.
Prince-Bythewood, whose previous movie was the romantic drama "Love & Basketball" (2000), guides Fanning to another of her emotionally sobered pre-adult/adult performances. But on screen something happens that goes beyond Monk's powers of description and Fanning's way of seeming 14 and 44 at the same time.
In part, this is a matter of casting. The performances by Okonedo, Keys, and Latifah are as different as the actors are different-looking - they seem more spiritually related than biologically so. They put into words some of what I've often thought women like Waters and Bailey were thinking in movies. June says it doesn't make any sense, for instance, that some white people raised by black women can turn out to be so hateful.
But Prince-Bythewood demonstrates a lovely gift for capturing the unsaid. When Lily tells Rosaleen she loves her, Rosaleen puts the girl under her arm and says nothing, which says the world about the complex bond between these two women.