From its attention-grabbing B-movie beginning, The Secret Life of Bees, a family drama based on the bestselling novel by Sue Monk Kidd, chugs pleasantly into a television special tailored for the crossover female market, while dropping tantalizing hints that it has more on its mind than a benign tale of substitute mothering across the color line. The ever-capable Dakota Fanning plays Lily, a motherless teenager who flees her bullying father (Paul Bettany, channeling Brad Dourif) to find safe haven with three black bee-keeping sisters more solidly equipped for life than she. Writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball) bathes them in a honeyed glow and tempers the soundtrack’s jaunty Motown music with a soft guitar when Southern racism pokes in its unwelcome head. Stately black actresses approaching middle age always run the risk of getting locked in as the face of Black Equanimity, and as August, the oldest sister whose job it is to teach Lily how to live a good life, Queen Latifah has no choice but to succumb. Only near the end does this likable but saccharine movie fleetingly complicate the Gone With the Wind–fed delusion that the love of poor, black nannies for their white charges was undiluted by bitterness. Is that Hattie McDaniel I hear, whooping for joy from beyond the grave?
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 15, 2008