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The Secret Life of Bees

By Wendy Ward | Posted 10/15/2008

Lily (Dakota Fanning) escapes to surreal dreaminess when bees fly out of her bedroom walls and buzz around her under the safety of nightfall on a 1964 peach farm. Her father, T. Ray (Paul Bettany), has resented her presence in the house ever since her mother was accidentally killed in a domestic tussle years ago and treats her cruelly enough to merit such escape.

Thus opens The Secret Life of Bees, based on Sue Monk Kidd's best-selling 2000 novel, which is so beloved you'd think it was an Oprah's Book Club selection. Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball) wrote the screenplay and beautifully directs this tale of love and redemption, which moves the novel's civil rights-era backdrop up to a more underlying force that motivates the movie's characters to free themselves from whatever might hold them down.

Lily's friendless and paternal-loveless life is buoyed by Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson), a housekeeper and independent spirit whose walk into town to register to vote just days after the Civil Rights Amendment passed ends in violence at the hands of hateful white men and results in running away with Lily to Tiburon, S.C. They choose Tiburon because it appears in a caption on the back of a picture of a black Madonna, one of the few things Lily has that were once her mother's. There, she and Rosaleen are taken in by beekeeper August Boatwright (Queen Latifah) and her equally independent sisters, the love-struck cellist and teacher at an all-black school June (Alicia Keyes) and May (Sophie Okonedo). August is kind and motherly, June headstrong and unfriendly, and May--well, May's heart is almost too big for this world. She takes the pain of another and makes it her own, and Okonedo's performance is perfectly funny, soft, and fragile.

Lily thrives in this safe environment, where she is surrounded by women who pray to the black Madonna--a wood sculpture with a painted red heart--within their own private religion. She learns about bees from Zach (Tristan Wilds), a high-school student who works the hives for August. Their friendship and budding romance, along with the financial security and education of the Boatwright sisters, highlights the optimistic nature of this Southern family, at a time when African-Americans lived under the yoke of institutional discrimination yet worked hard to not let the past determine their future.

And they are learning to move on from folks turning an unkind eye on a little white girl living with four black women, segregated schools and movie theaters, and low expectations based on the color of their skin. Bees is a story of the civil-rights era, told through the eyes of a young white girl searching for clues about her mother and instead finding the strength to grow up.

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