Hollywood has an interesting take on South Carolina.
I’m not talking about how it uses the admittedly picturesque state as a scenic backdrop (“The Notebook,” “Cold Mountain”) or even as a punchline (“Bastard Out of Carolina”), but rather the curious fashion in which it frames race relations. For in spite of the state’s history (first to secede from the Union, violence during the Civil Rights Era, Strom Thurmond), Hollywood seems to believe South Carolina harbors improbable oases of enlightenment.
The first evidence of this was in “The Patriot,” when Benjamin Martin’s (Mel Gibson) family found refuge with what amounted to a resort community populated almost wholly by free blacks. In 1776. Now “The Secret Life of Bees,” director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s second effort, comes along with a proposition somewhat less implausible, but still highly unlikely.
The year is 1964, and LBJ has just signed the Civil Rights Act. Not that this means much to the black citizens of rural SoCar – specially not young Rosalee (Jennifer Hudson), who is badly beaten by three men when she attempts to register to vote. But then, this isn’t really her story. The main character of the movie (and the Sue Monk Kidd book upon which the movie is based) is 14-year Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning), who lives with her abusive father T. Ray (Paul Bettany) amid hazy memories of her mother’s accidental death. As in, then 4-year old Lily accidentally shot her.
Long-simmering guilt and Dad’s assertion that dear old mom had abandoned them all those years ago are tough enough for a young girl to deal with. So when Rosalee, who’s the closest thing to a mother Lily has, gets beaten she needs little excuse to bust her out of the hospital and beat feet for Tiburon, a town she believes holds a key to her mother’s past.
At this point, “The Secret Life of Bees” takes a sharp turn into Fantasyland (which is too bad, as the movie had actually been nicely building in intensity). Lily and Rosalee meet the Boatwright sisters, May (Sophie Okonedo), June (Alicia Keys), and August (Queen Latifah). August, the owner and operator of a beehive, takes the pair in based on Lily’s hard-luck – and fictional – story. And for a time, she and Rosalee find the peace and acceptance that they’ve never known.
I guess I’m too cynical to accept the second and third acts of this movie. I can’t buy the premise that a black woman in the Deep South in 1964 could operate a business that uses a black Madonna and child for its trademark, or that a black boy (“The Wire’s” Tristan Wilds) in the same environment could be caught holding hands with a white girl and not end up hanging from the nearest tree, or that T. Ray – upon discovering his runaway daughter has been living with three black women – would accept August’s stern dressing-down and leave with his tail between his legs and not, say, seek out the local Grand Dragon to rouse the KKK and burn their house to the ground. “The Secret Life of Bees” should have billed itself as a fairy tale, as that’s the only possible way to swallow what Prince-Bythewood and Kidd are feeding us.