Many take it for granted that they will be able to stroll into polling places two weeks from Tuesday and vote for the candidates of their choice. In South Carolina in 1964, Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson), a young black housekeeper, does not have that luxury.
In "The Secret Life of Bees," based on Sue Monk Kidd's novel, Rosaleen is assaulted en route to registration just days after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. She finds herself recovering from a head injury in the "colored ward" of a hospital, until her boss' plucky daughter Lily (Dakota Fanning) beats the lynch mob to her room, and the two hit the road. They soon find sanctuary in the home of beekeeper August Boatwright (Queen Latifah) and her two sisters, cellist June (Alicia Keys) and forlorn May (Sophie Okonedo). August is not the kind of woman who turns away travelers in need, and Lily feels a connection to the place because of a postcard that belonged to her late mother.
Lily has many unanswered questions about her mother and doesn't get along with her father (Paul Bettany). He is cruel and occasionally abusive, and his biggest crime is that he doesn't love his daughter. He doesn't even try. At the Boatwrights', Lily is mothered to a degree only a girl who grew up without a mother could stand. As a tale of unorthodox familial love, the film transcends its setting, and it is worth seeing just to watch these talented actresses interact.
Too often, the black characters in major films only appear to exist for the sake of white characters. That is often the case here, though we learn just enough about the Boatwrights to realize that any of the sisters could be the protagonist of her own tale. When did June become a cellist? Why did August decide to become a honey entrepreneur? What did May's first visit to her Wailing Wall look like? The most moving scene is a wordless one between the three sisters; Lily is present but superfluous. I would have to spoil a major plot element to tell you more, but you will know it when you see it.
To Lily's credit, she doesn't assume that the women are only around to take care of her. She worries that her presence is a liability to the Boatwrights and is silently humbled when Rosaleen charges her with using the assault as an excuse to run away. The escape was never meant to be Rosaleen's, but Lily's.
The problem with winning an Oscar for your first role, in a scene-stealing, heart-breaking tour de force, is that for the rest of your career you run the risk of having people say, "Well, she is good here, but not as good as she was in 'Dreamgirls.' " And Hudson isn't as good here as she was in "Dreamgirls," mainly because she doesn't have much to do after the first act. The Effie White character of "Dreamgirls" was an exception to the rule that curvy black actresses are usually stuck playing second fiddle to skinny white leads. Hudson's last big movie role was as Carrie Bradshaw's assistant in "Sex and the City," which should tell you something.
During the "Freedom Summer" of 1964, Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. Volunteers registered black voters all across the South (three of these volunteers were brutally murdered in Mississippi). These events are carefully placed in the background of a young white girl's coming-of-age story, and it is richer for the context. But someday, I hope to see a major studio film that puts a struggle like Rosaleen's front-and-center.
THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES
3 stars (Out of 4)
STARRING: Queen Latifah, Dakota Fanning and Jennifer Hudson
DIRECTOR: Gina Prince-Blythewood
RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes
RATING: PG-13 for thematic material and some violence.
THE LOWDOWN: In 1960s South Carolina, a teenager runs away from her cruel father to live with a family of beekeepers.