The Secret Life of Bees
Blond, blue-eyed Lily Owens, a girl who shares America's birthday, also shares some of her country's growing pains as both change drastically during the racially turbulent summer of 1964. That's when the 14-year-old's already wobbly life spins into a "whole new orbit" as she flees her father T. Ray's intolerable abuse.
Lily springs her African-American nanny, Rosaleen Daise, from prison. And the two hitch a ride to Tiburon, S.C. There, Lily's late mother, Deborah—barely remembered though much longed for by Lily—had mysterious ties, and Lily believes she can reinvent her own world on a clean slate.
But the Civil Rights Act is still so fresh it's "nothing but a piece of paper." Lily and Rosaleen have no plan or options for their new life until they meet the "Calendar Sisters": May, June and August Boatwright. These welcoming black beekeepers, who boast a black Virgin Mary on their honey-jar labels, open their hearts and "Pepto-Bismol"-painted home to teach both runaways the power of community, colorblindness and freely given grace.
Rosaleen and Lily's relationship, though tried by stressful events and differing personalities, is ultimately supportive as the two head out together on an unknown and dangerous road. The Boatwrights become the recipients of the pair's assistance and loyalty, too. And close ties among the five women paint a powerful, sometimes beautiful picture of friendship and racial integration.
While tending bees, master keeper August teaches apprentice Lily "bee-yard etiquette"—which she believes is pretty similar to the world's: Don't be afraid—no bee wants to sting you. But don't be an idiot, either; wear long sleeves. Don't swat. Send love, because "every living thing wants to be loved."
Racism is rightfully portrayed as both hurtful and ludicrous. Cultured black women such as August, June and May are among the most logical and loving people in town. And racists are shown by their behavior to be cruel and ignorant.
Despite Lily's fear that "the truth will wreck everything," her young African-American friend Zach challenges her to seek and tell it rather than lying about her past. "I know you're scared," he says, "Finding out the truth is only half of it. It's what you do with it that matters." In response, Lily faces even her most difficult situations with greater courage and honesty. Zack also spurs Lily to dream big and then pursue those dreams.
When discussing their home's unique pink hue, August tells Lily that, in spite of her own preferences, she chose the color because it "lifts May's heart"—little things like ugly paint don't matter in light of someone else's happiness.
Straight-backed sister June eventually overcomes her fear to love again, and she and her beau, Neil, work their way through a bumpy relationship toward marriage. Momentarily overcoming the racist culture that surrounds him, a kindly store owner offers to sell Lily and Rosaleen a meal.
We see Lily grow from despising her father to accepting (while not condoning) his fallen nature and forgiving him as she puts herself in his broken shoes. We also see her, through August's affection and guidance, come to grips with the tragedy of her mother's abandonment and death. As a result, Lily sees her own worth.
This is where things get cloudier than the Boatwrights' honey. It feels as if these women believe they must reinvent and "improve" Christianity because it, at least as it has been handed down to them, does not contain enough of their own belief in the feminine divine. (Early on Rosaleen asks forcefully what kind of strange religion it is that they practice.)
Illustrating this are the sisters' home-based worship services. May, June and August, joined by a few friends, gather round a totem-like black Virgin Mary carved with a fist flung into the air. During feverish meetings, they pray to Mary using rosary beads. They claim God provided the wooden statue "to take care of them" when their ancestors pleaded for deliverance. They touch Mary's painted chest for strength and comfort, and believe she can feel and relieve their spiritual chains since she herself once bore them. Lily, enthralled by her new friends' seemingly powerful religion, says she finds comfort and healing in the statue. When she prays to the Virgin, she "feels her" and believes Mary "rises and goes further inside" her to fill the mother-shaped hole Lily says her life has been.
Within the apparent syncretism, there is no mention of God's power and ability to save. And failing to recognize Christ's redeeming sacrifice, August flatly tells Lily, "There is no perfect love."
Those who have read the novel of the same title know that author Sue Monk Kidd delves even further into the realms of feminist spirituality and feminine divinity. Which makes the movie's sticky spirituality no less troubling, but it does shed light on the question of why Bees exhibits such a poor opinion of the majority of its male roles. Rather than looking to a biblical (and masculine) God for healing and guidance, these women look primarily to Mary and the power of their own femininity to, in a sense, rebirth and guide themselves.
Other spiritual content: To diffuse her deeply felt emotions and their devastating effect, May has built and utilizes a backyard "wailing wall" loosely patterned after the Jewish wall in Jerusalem. A song about death is sung twice, once during a funeral. In part, it reads, "Place a beehive on my grave/And let the honey soak through/When I'm dead and gone/That's what I want from you/The streets of heaven are gold and sunny/But I'll stick with my plot and a pot of honey."
Though the song is nonsensical in one sense, it is also representational of what seems to be the sisters' worldview: God isn't necessarily as great as He's cracked up to be. Instead, give me what I know and trust—honey (which in literature sometimes holds mystical powers) and my own beliefs.
May and Lily discuss how May felt when she first started kissing boys ("Like I was gonna burst"). May proffers advice on how Lily can get boys to kiss her. (Baking a 7UP cake to give them seems to be the answer.)
Innocent May is fond of making "candlestick salad"—an unintentionally (at least on her part) phallic, cherry-topped banana concoction. Lily says, "It looks like—" and Zach cuts her off to reply, "Yeah, I know."
Zach gently puts his finger into Lily's mouth, allowing her to taste the honey on it. This awakens new sexual awareness and desire in the teens, though they very quickly try to stifle it. Eventually, as their relationship deepens, they kiss. Neil and June kiss passionately, dance closely and embrace repeatedly.
A brief and somewhat blurred flashback to T. Ray's viciousness toward his wife soberly opens the movie as he shakes her, pushes her and throws her to the floor. In the struggle, a gun is dropped, and it's implied that in her effort to give the weapon to her mom, a 4-year-old Lily kills her.
Ten years later, T. Ray continues his violent ways by abusing Lily, swearing at, threatening and shaking her. Once, he grabs her by the hair, hits her and throws her across a room. "Punishment" for Lily involves her kneeling on a pile of dry grits—for hours at a time.
The camera doesn't flinch as T. Ray angrily acts out. And neither does it blink as Rosaleen is beaten by three bigots who hit her hard in the face, grab her head and throw her to the ground. Her forehead is split open and later we see the bloody gash that has been stitched.
We see police abduct Zach from a movie theater as he legally sits next to Lily. He is beaten off camera and we see the resulting cuts and bruises on his face when he returns from police "custody."
[Spoiler Warning] One of the three Boatwright sisters commits suicide—by drowning herself in a stream—when the weight of her emotions proves too much for her delicate soul. She leaves a note indicating that she'll be happier in heaven, and that she hopes her absence does her family and friends good. (Lily vomits when she sees the body floating just under the surface of the water.)
Crude or Profane Language
God's name is coupled with "d--n" a half-dozen times. Jesus' is abused at least four. "Lord" is also interjected lightly. The s-word is used at least three times. Other blemishes include "a--," "h---" and "d--n," each used three or four times. Neil once calls June a "b--ch" when she fails to say yes to his proposal of marriage. The n-word is used four or five times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Rosaleen chews tobacco. And she uses the resulting spit to defy white assailants—by pouring it on one man's shoes. T. Ray drinks beer as he punishes Lily.
Other Negative Elements
At 14, Lily is already a criminal—and happily so. She helps Rosaleen escape from a prison hospital bed, lying to authorities and fleeing the town with her.
In a goodbye note of sorts, Lily tells her father that he "should rot in hell."
Neil and June, in their rocky romance, argue heatedly and often treat each other with disrespect. In turn, June alternately bosses her boyfriend and ignores him, claiming she "doesn't need him."
Lily lies incessantly. We're not shown whether she feels guilty for doing so, and there are no apparent consequences for her lies. In fact, they even seem to help her get and stay out of trouble.
T. Ray's neglect of Lily is simply miserable. Besides his violence, he deceives her, causing her the great anguish of doubting her mother's love. Lily also learns that her mother's pregnancy was illegitimate, causing her to question the strength of parental relationships even more.
Humor. Warmth. Conflict resolution. Richly textured characters who learn intense lessons and grow as a result. These are all among the elements of a captivating tale, and The Secret Life of Bees contains them all. But, unfortunately, not without stinging problems.
This coming-of-age saga may well spread itself too thin, flitting from one sobering subject to another: racism, physical and emotional abuse, emerging sexuality, spirituality, suicide. But it's the profane language, violence, ignoble character traits and religious mysticism that thoroughly taint and entangle what could have been the simple nectar of emotional healing, racial integration, finding understanding in the face of suffering and emotional growth through deep friendships.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Queen Latifah as August Boatwright; Dakota Fanning as Lily Owens; Jennifer Hudson as Rosaleen Daise; Alicia Keys as June Boatwright; Sophie Okonedo as May Boatwright; Paul Bettany as T. Ray Owen, Nate Parker as Neil
Gina Prince-Bythewood ( )