You know, bees on film don’t necessarily have a lot of positive associations for me. Candyman, My Girl, Bee Movie, The Wicker Man (the Nic Cage remake, of course): bees bring about nothing good in these films. Can this week’s pick save the bees, or at least their image in popular media? Either way, Feminist February, featuring films directed by Black women, rolls on!
The Secret Life of Bees
After running away from home, teenage Lily and her housekeeper find shelter at an apiary owned and operated by Black women in 1960s South Carolina.
Tragedy strikes Lily Owens’ life at just the age of 4 when her mother dies as a result of an accidental shooting. After leaving behind her abusive husband, Lily’s mother Deborah returns for one day…either to collect her things or her daughter. Lily’s belief that she can live with her mother is quickly dashed when, witnessing a struggle between her parents, she accidentally fires the shot that kills Deborah.
Years later, as a teenager on her father’s peach orchard in South Carolina, Lily’s most earnest wish is to learn more about the person her mother was. Aaaand guess which topic is the very one that T. Ray has absolutely no interest in discussing? Relying on just a few hidden treasures from her mother’s past to imagine what her life was like, Lily holds on to the belief that her mother was returning for her daughter.
Though largely oblivious to the sociopolitical happenings around her, even Lily learns about the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act as she watches the news with housekeeper Rosaleen. While she is fairly skeptical that the law will result in real change, Rosaleen, tired of enduring racist insults and attacks, stands up to a group of white men who harass her. When she refuses to apologize for her actions, Rosaleen is assaulted and arrested. After T. Ray makes the casual remark that one of the more vengeful men may ultimately kill Rosaleen, Lily fears for her friend’s life.
For Lily, the last straw is really when T. Ray claims decisively that Deborah never loved her daughter and merely returned to the family home to reclaim her belongings. In response, Lily busts Rosaleen out of the hospital and the two run away, with Lily’s agenda to learn about her mother always on the backburner. Stumbling upon a shop in a small town, Lily recognizes the label on a jar of honey featuring the Black Madonna and decides to seek answers there.
The apiary is owned by the Boatwrights, a family of 3 Black sisters: August, June, and May. Lily is reasonably good at lying on the spot and claims her parents are dead; though August sees through the lie, she offers the two travelers a place to stay in exchange for help with the bees.
As Lily learns more about beekeeping, she gets to know the sisters better: maternal leader August, impatient activist June, and sweet but depressed May. Lily also meets family friend and employee Zach, a young man who dreams of being a lawyer who she’s definitely crushing on.
The amount of time Lily spends with Zach does not go unnoticed by the local racists & segregationists, and things take a turn for the horrific pretty quickly. How will Lily and her newfound family endure the terror they face?
3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads
First, the cast is absolutely the element that stood out to me before watching, and that’s even more true after. Our leading ladies Jennifer Hudson, Queen Latifah, Alicia Keys, and Sophie Okonedo are great, particularly given some of the character development limitations. Because the film centers on Lily’s experiences, we don’t always see these characters brought to life as vividly as I’d like. Queen Latifah is charismatic AF in everything she does, but I don’t know if I could tell you much about her character August here except…she’s maternal? Perhaps to a degree that creeps into problematic territory?
On a related note, having Lily’s perspective drive the plot forward is frustrating. I don’t discount the psychological pain she experiences throughout her traumatic childhood. However, focusing on this pain in the narrative fails to give the racist trauma of Rosaleen and the Boatwright sisters the consideration it needs. Lily seems pretty fucking selfish when she puts Black friends and family in dangerous situations multiple times because she hasn’t at all considered the impact. This isn’t really ever addressed, so the film glosses over the terror and violence while allowing Lily to obliviously hold on to her privilege.
I do give a lot of credit for the house and set design; it’s done beautifully and feels every bit the safe haven it’s meant to be. The issue with it being such an idyllic home does reflect a major issue I have with the film: as much as I want this vision of life in the ’60s South to be true, I don’t believe it. We get so close to addressing some of the heavy themes brought up in the story but then immediately back away. The story is so determined to be a happy one that it makes some of the major plot elements ring false.
Though this analysis has largely been negative (what else would you expect, regular reader[s] of the blog?), this is by no means a bad film. It’s entertaining and sweet, and refreshing to see a story involving a family of Black women building a home and business against the odds. It’s just a shame that these are supporting characters in yet another white girl’s coming-of-age story. Because Hollywood.