Secret Life of the Bees (2008)

Rated PG-13 Our Rating: V-3 ; L- 1; S/N- 2. Length: 1 hour 50 min.

And he replied, “Who are my mother and my
brothers?” And looking at those who sat around
him, he said, “Here are my mother and my
brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my
brother and sister and mother.”
Mark 3:33-35

A new family is formed through love and understanding.

2008 Fox Searchlight Films

Dakota Fanning is passing on gracefully from child actor to maturing teenager in director Gina Prince- Bythewood’s moving adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd ’s 2002 novel. 14 year-old Lily Owens, living with a seemingly unfeeling father, has persistent nightmares in which she sees her father struggling with her mother. Having taken refuge in a closet, the little girl reaches out and picks up a gun that has fallen during the fight. Apparently wanting to protect her mother, she fires it, killing her mother. She grows up with the resultant guilt and her father’s story that her mother had abandoned her and returned only to pick up her possessions. He drinks too much and develops a coldness toward her. Taking her mother’s place is maid, cook, and nanny Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson), providing emotional support as well as caring for the physical needs of her young charge. However, the time is 1964 and the place South Carolina. When Rosaleen is accosted by white bigots during an attempt to vote, she boldly stands up to them. To Lily’s horror, they savagely beat what they regard as an “uppity” troublemaker. Fearing that she has been killed, we are relieved to see her in a prison hospital, badly bruised, but still alive.

To protect Rosaleen and to escape her harsh father, T. Ray Owens (Paul Bettany), when he thinks she has been meeting with a boy under the cover of darkness, the two flee their village, heading for the town of Tiburon. Lily’s choice of destination is based on a label for a honey jar that the girl found among her late mother’s possessions and which she keeps hidden in a tin buried in the yard. (It was while she had dug up the tin and was trying on her mother’s gloves that her suspicious father had called to her and concluded that she had slipped out to meet a boy.) Although Lily has no idea of what lies ahead, she hopes that there will be some connection between her mother and the town. Arriving there by hitch hiking, they see in a restaurant window a large display of “Black Madonna Honey.” The label is the same one treasured from her mother’s belongings.

Told by the restaurant owner that the maker lives with her sisters in a pink house a little outside of the village, the two arrive at their destination. There is no mistaking the house. When the three sisters appear, June Boatwright (Alicia Keys) is chilly toward the strangers, but simple-minded May (Sophie Okonedo) and August (Queen Latifah) extend a warm welcome. June, a music teacher, finds refuge in playing her cello, while August, clearly the matriarch, watches over the bee colony, showing Lily their secret life and how to care for them. May usually is upbeat, but subject to mood swings that point to a damaged past. She finds an outlet for her emotions and thoughts by turning a low stone wall into the counterpart of Jerusalem’s famous Wailing Wall. She places folded up notes in crevices, one of them an anguished note about the “four little angels” killed in the bomb blast of a Birmingham church.

How Lily and Rosaleen become intertwined with the lives of the three sisters makes for a heart-warming tale. It is good to see a reversal of the usual situation depicted in liberal films that deal with racism: instead of the white character coming to the aid of African Americans, it is Lily who is set on the road toward psychic healing by August and May. There are some unrealistic touches that must be allowed for—Tristan Wilds (Zachary Taylor), August’s godson attracted to Lily, surely should have been able to see the consequences of his inviting her to sit with him in the segregated balcony of the movie theater; and in a society that often punished “coloreds” that became too successful, there is no hint of danger from neighboring less prosperous whites to the sisters living so well on their large, Eden-like farm.

The acting is superb, Dakota Fanning handling well the passage from girlhood to blossoming sexuality. Queen Latifah exudes a quiet dignity at all times, and Paul Bettany manages to arouse our sympathy as the neglectful but anguished father. The scene in which he catches up with his runaway daughter keeps us in suspense and leaves us with a sense of hope. For a film of healing and redemption—not only of Lily’s but of battered Rosaleen and embittered May as well—this film is hard to beat. A good film for youth groups and families to see and discuss!

For Reflection/Discussion

Spoiler alert.

1) How has the terrible incident seen in flashback shaped Lily’s life? How has her father apparently reacted to it? Do we see in the birthday sequence any sign that he does care about her?

2) What inspires Rosaleen to attempt to register to vote? How was what happened to her symbolic of what was taking place all over the South during the Sixties? (Allow me a personal note here: In Bolivar County Mississippi in 1964, when I was a part of Freedom Summer, I took an African American school teacher to the courthouse, where for the umpteenth time she “failed” the registration test. On the way back home she told me that she wasn’t about to stop, that she would keep going until they got sick and tired of her and would give her a pass just to be rid of her.)

3) How does August embody the spirit of Biblical hospitality? (See Hebrews 13:2 with its reference to Abraham’s welcoming the three strangers.)

4) Does the title refer only to bees—how is it related to Lily and Rosaleen as well?

5) What did you think of May’s use of the stone wall on the farm? How does this show that she kept in contact with the larger world despite her condition? Were you prepared for what happened to May? How does this affect the other characters?

6) How does the statue attract Lily? A good song that came to my mind is the Beatles’ “Let It Be.” Appropriate? How do the various characters need “Mother Mary’s” warm embrace? And yet, at first, what affect does it have on Lily? (Flashback to her own mother!) What do you think May’s remark to Lily reveals: “Sometimes not feeling is the only way to survive” ? Have you felt this way at times, needing to distance yourself from feelings that could overwhelm you?

7) What is the reason that we learn that the sisters painted the house its unusual color? How does this show the compassion of August? Do certain colors “lift” your heart?

8) Why do you think June rejects the advances of Nate Parker? How does she also need healing? What does the water fight suggest is happening to June and the others? Another song from the era that came to my mind during this scene, “Healing River,” often sung by Pete Seeger, almost as a prayer: “O healing River/Send down your waters!/Send down your waters/upon this land.” How might Christians relate this scene to the nature of Baptism? What does it signify for June, and Lily and Rosaleen?

9) What line does Tristan cross when he sneaks Lily into the theater balcony? (Again referring to my C-R experience in Miss: we were ordered never to mix our seating when traveling around the county by car: “Negroes” were all to sit together in the back, or the front, and whites all together.) How is what happened to him typical of the penalty enacted by the dominant white society back then? Are there similar lines (though differen
t circumstances) dividing us today?

10) How is August’s taking in Lily and Rosaleen similar to what Jesus said when his family came looking for him? What do you think is transpiring in the mind of Lily’s father when he confronts this new family? How is his decision possibly a sign that he too is experiencing some measure of healing?

11) Explore the meaning of August’s giving Rosaleen a new name—and how does is this new name entirely appropriate, showing that she really is a “member of the family” ? In what ways do you see your church as a new or larger family? How is it (or can it be) a foretaste of the kingdom of God?