Ever since we read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry at school, I’ve had a fascination with stories of racial inequality and the Civil Rights Movement, so The Secret Life of Bees (2008) didn’t have to work especially hard to push my buttons. It’s not just that racial segregation is so patently pointless and stupid, it’s the fact that so many wrongheaded a-holes take it upon themselves to enforce these sorts of partitions with excessive violence, way past the point of a proportional response. It’s just so insane, it makes me despair for humanity in general. Gah! Anyhoo, Bees is set in South Carolina in 1964, and follows the story of a white girl named ‘Lily’ (pun?), who runs away from home and winds up being taken in by the Boatwrights, three independent and upright African-American sisters who own a honey farm together. Lily is accompanied on this journey by her family’s maid, ‘Rosaleen’, who has good reason to flee their hometown, after being beaten for attempting to register to vote. This is one of those movies that always seems to be teetering on the brink of tragedy, so it’s a fairly tense viewing experience, despite the scenes of sisterly bonding and spiritual uplift. I wouldn’t necessarily say it was a stone-cold classic, because the plot doesn’t seem especially strong, but it does boast a lot of great performances and it does have its heart in the right place.
One of the main draws for me was that Rosaleen was played by the stunningly gorgeous Jennifer Hudson, but sadly she isn’t in it as much as her third-from-the-top billing might suggest. Her character starts strong, with some powerful scenes with Lily (Dakota Fanning)… but once they move in with the Boatwrights, she recedes into the background a little more, and becomes a mute observer rather than an active participant. Heck, she barely even gets to sing, which is obviously a letdown considering what a great voice Hudson has! Frankly, I would have preferred to see more of her character, as she recovers from her wounds (both physical and otherwise) and earns her place in the sisters’ household, and much less of Lily, whose story was rather too outlandish to take seriously. Unless you’ve also accidentally shot and killed one of your parents at an early age, in which case you might find it more relatable.
With Rosaleen taking a back seat (no pun intended) to her young ward, the priggish and prickly ‘June Boatwright’ quickly became my favourite character. Only the other day I was watching Alicia Keys performing a Bond theme alongside Jack White, but I had no idea she was such a talented actress! She plays June so perfectly that you can’t help feeling for her, even when she’s being an unbelievable bitch to everyone around her. Checking her IMDb page, I was reminded that Keys also had a substantial role in Smokin’ Aces (2006), which is a ridiculously flashy action flick that I’ve always had a soft spot for. I’ve been listening to some more of her music recently, and was surprised by how many tunes I recognised… she’s quite a talented and prolific young lady, no? I also have to give props to Sophie Okonedo for her portrayal of ‘May Boatwright’. The character could have become a bad cartoon with the wrong casting, but Okonedo brings enough sincerity and substance to the role, so that May’s childish fragility never feels too mawkish. Apparently I’ve seen Okonedo before in such eclectic projects as Æon Flux (2005), Dirty Pretty Things (2002) and Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls (1995), so I’ll have to keep an eye out for her in future!