The Secret Life of Bees (2008) ***

Rated: PG-13
Runtime: 1hr 50min
Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Stars: Dakota Fanning, Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson, Alicia Keys, Sophie Okonedo
Genre: Drama
Language: English

Keeping hopes up when there's nowhere else to go.

In a Nutshell


Straight as an Arrow

Sound Quality

Easy to Hear

Who's That?

Few Main Characters

Naughty Words


Naked people




In troubled times, there can be reassurance in past troubles, in a reminder of what can be overcome.  “The Secret Life of Bees” offers this perspective.  It views the segregated South of the early 1960’s through a long-distance lens that pares the narrative down to a parable and frames the characters like mythic heroines.  You don’t need any more grisly details than the film provides to know exactly where you are and what is happening in that place and time. So much — at least — is history.

Regarding history, “The Secret Life of Bees” is admirably restrained.  Any more full-throated replay of racial violence would have overwhelmed the delicate coming-of-age-story from which the film is drawn.  It would have eclipsed the magnificent quartet of African-American women whose inter-dependent strength its main message.  And, it would have drowned out the metaphor of the aviary that hums through the tale.

At the center of the beehive is the queen, in this case Queen Latifah as August Boatright, an Earth Mother from whom sweetness and profound spiritual wisdom flows.  August takes in fourteen-year-old Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning), an imaginative and desperate runaway from her rage-aholic redneck father’s abuse.  Lily drags along a fellow-sufferer Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson), her friend, nanny and surrogate mom, and lies their way into the bosom of August’s highly functional family.

May Boatright (Sophie Okenedo) is the “special needs” member who draws out the love in everyone.  June Boatright (Alicia Keyes) has a little bit of an attitude, but in her feisty defensiveness represents yet another aspect of the eternal feminine modeled by August’s clan.  Lily and Rosaleen fit right in to life in a big Pepto-Bismol pink Victorian house that seems almost, but not quite, hermetically sealed from the painful struggles beyond their front door.  Lily thrives.  Inexorable Destiny has led her here to unravel the mystery of her mother’s abandonment.

Herein lies the rub.  As pure and simple as the story line is meant to be, the awful circumstances of the mother’s death, which have obviously traumatized Lily, also leave the viewer with distracting questions as the film progresses.   And, while the acting is in every instance superlative, the pacing of “The Secret Life of Bees” produces unnecessary impatience.  It is as if the camera just could not bear to leave the tender exchange, or the offer of wise counsel.  It lingers too long while the virtuoso performers fill these extended moments without ever overplaying (they are amazing).  It is sometimes as if the director/writer (Gina Prince-Blythewood) thought a direct translation could be made from the descriptive language of the novel to visual “poetry”.   Or, maybe it’s the editing (Terilyn A. Shropshire) that could have moved things along a little more briskly and spared us a slightly saccharine aftertaste to this genuinely sweet story.

Lynn McCann's checkered professional life began with dance and has included singing and acting, writing and journalism, teaching and tutoring. A long career as a computer programmer is mercifully behind her and she looks forward to publishing a memoir, a biography, and a popular history of automation technology. She continues to perform as a singer, and leads New York City tours for Elderhostel.


Eli said on December 2, 2012


To all these people cpialoinmng about the formula of this movie, can I ask you a question? HOW MANY OF YOU HAVE READ THE DAMN BOOK!? If you did, you wouldn’t be saying the dumb isht you’re saying. Their NOT playing mammies, there’s no interracial relationship seeing as though Tristan is 19 and Dakota Fanning is a little girl! (Come on people! THINK!). They’re intelligent, cultured black women making a living by harvesting honey from bees. They just happen to help out a little white girl (which PLENTY of black women did back in this time). This movie is ALL THINGS BLACK (actors, director, author), so why is it we’re hating on it, being negative, and tearing it down? Sometimes, you can’t please folks! At least read a synopsis of the book before you judge it when you have NO IDEA what it’s about! Jeesh!

Sarah said on February 18, 2014


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