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Donners’ Company

Too much honey

Movies | The Secret Life of Bees is kind, insightful-and overbearing

Issue: "Not over till it's over," Nov. 1, 2008

The Secret Life of Bees (rated PG-13 for thematic material and some violence), adapted from a Sue Monk Kidd novel, adheres to the same richly woven but feministic mold as the best-selling book. The story follows 14-year-old Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning) who lives with her surly father in 1960s South Carolina. An African-American nanny named Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson) cares for the motherless child.

Lily suffers at the hands of her father, but more so at the terrible memory of accidentally killing her mother as a toddler. After Rosaleen has a confrontation with murderous racists and Lily with her father, the two run away and find a community of wise, cultured, and loving African-American sisters who operate a beekeeping business: serene August (Queen Latifah), fiery June (Alicia Keys), and sensitive May (Sophie Okonedo). Lily, as a white child, attracts danger to the black family she comes to love.

The movie offers strong performances by a talented cast. However, the characters they play are not so much people as symbols. May, whose psyche has broken under the weight of many sorrows, symbolizes bruised innocence; June is an awakening African-American consciousness; and August embodies black dignity. The bees, and even their honey, serve as metaphors for ideal society. The movie builds predictably to a tear-jerker climax as well as to Lily's finding a sense of self.

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What credit the movie earns with a rich portrayal of African-American experience in the South it loses with its overbearing matriarchal message. Men are either mean or peripheral. The household has created its own female-centric religion: They worship a wooden, black Madonna which they believe is "strong, constant, [has] a mother's heart, and [knows] everything they had suffered." The film is so kind and insightful, if a bit overly dramatic, that it's seductively easy to buy into the portrayal of women as wise, mystic, angelic, and something more than merely human.

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