Note: It’s rare that I go to a movie simply because I want to write a review panning it. I admit that the film version of The Secret Life of Bees never had much of a chance with me, because of my strong feelings against the bestselling novel by Sue Monk Kidd. So prepare yourselves for a biased commentary.
Over the past few years, I’ve developed the unfortunate habit of telling nice, middle-aged, white women that their favorite book is racist. It begins when they ask me about my dissertation topic: I mutter something about women and place and spirituality, and they gush, “Oh, you should read The Secret Life of Bees!” The first time this happened, I actually read the book. I ended up incorporating it into my dissertation . . . as a negative example.
It’s not that the book is intentionally racist. In fact, I think it’s probably very well intentioned, but, well, we all know what the road to hell is paved with. Sue Monk Kidd probably has no idea that she portrays African American characters in stereotyped ways, and neither do a good number of her readers. Some African Americans seem to find the book less objectionable than I do, given that Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith produced the film version, and that marvelous actors like Sophie Okonedo, Jennifer Hudson, Queen Latifah, and Alicia Keys signed on to star. (However, given the dearth of good roles for black actors in Hollywood, this may not be surprising after all.)
The Secret Life of Bees is set in South Carolina in 1964, and despite this wealth of African American star-power, the tale focuses on the emotional journey of a white girl named (none too subtly) Lily, played with wide-eyed innocence by Dakota Fanning. Lily, as a four-year-old, accidentally shot and killed her mother, so she has a genuine burden of guilt. Kidd does have a knack for including one interesting macabre detail in her novels, before covering it over with saccharine metaphors for healing. (In her second novel, The Mermaid Chair, which is even more poorly written than Bees, one character cuts off her own fingers as a way of dealing with her shame over the past. That’s the one interesting part of the novel, so I’ve saved you the trouble of reading it.) Despite my dislike for it, I see why The Secret Life of Bees (both novel and film) is appealing: it presents very moving symbols of guilt and healing.
The problem is that the African American characters are forced to be these symbols, instead of being characters in their own right. Lily, with her maid Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson), ends up at the house of a trio of beekeeping African American women because she believes they have some connection with her dead mother’s past. These women, the Boatwright sisters, become Lily’s stand-in mothers, because apparently they have nothing better to concern themselves with than playing nanny to little white girls. To August Boatwright (Queen Latifah) falls the primary symbolic role as nurturing earth-mother, dispensing nuggets of self-help wisdom to Lily, never even getting angry with the white girl for the series of disasters that her arrival sets in motion.
June Boatwright (Alicia Keys) is the “angry” sister (we know she’s angry because she wears NAACP T-shirts), so by the end of the movie, she too has to be calmed into accepting Lily and mothering her. May Boatwright (Sophie Okonedo) is in some ways the least stereotypical of the sisters: she comes across as childlike and possibly developmentally disabled, and she is so affected by the suffering of others that she’s like an exposed nerve. Her intense empathy threatens to swamp her, and so her sisters create for her a “Wailing Wall,” a rock wall where she can place little prayers written down on paper. I read The Secret Life of Bees at a time when I was struggling to cope with the world’s suffering in a way that wasn’t self-destructive, and I immediately saw the appeal in May’s character. However, the heavy-handed plot requires improbable actions from her just to move things along, and ultimately she remains just an archetype of overpowering empathy.
The movie version of The Secret Life of Bees holds an advantage over the book in that even the most stereotypically written characters gain depth when played by skilled actresses. A facial expression can convey mixed feelings in a way that honey-drenched words on a page cannot. To be fair, there are also a few lines in the film that question Lily’s naïve, white-centered vision of the world. However, as soon as an African American character starts to rebuke Lily or question her judgment, the potentially interesting confrontation gets hurried off screen through a hug or a hair-tousle. Is this a compelling portrayal of forgiveness? No, because Lily has never even understood her own unthinking narcissism.
I believe that white Christians need to be particularly careful about pushing people of other cultures or races into symbolic roles. In nineteenth-century America, Harriet Beecher Stowe made a black character named “Uncle Tom” into a moving symbol of Christlike sacrifice and submission. No one can deny the positive effects of Uncle Tom’s Cabin: it roused protest against the Fugitive Slave Act and rallied popular support for emancipation. However, as many readers, both black and white, have since pointed out, there are problems with Tom’s stereotypical characterization. We can claim that Stowe intended Tom’s status as a Christ figure as an honor to African Americans, and in some ways it is—what greater honor could anyone have than to be compared to Christ? On the other hand, the fact that Tom is merely a symbol makes it easy to disregard him as a person—a big problem in an era when the personhood of African Americans was frequently, and legally, denied.
This weekend, when I saw the first sentence of Entertainment Weekly’s review of The Secret Life of Bees, I jumped up, clicked my heels in joy, and immediately posted it to my Facebook profile (the natural succession of events). Here’s what Owen Gleiberman had to say: “In an age when Will Smith is the world’s most popular movie star and Barack Obama could well be elected president, it’s fair to ask: Isn’t it time that Hollywood took a sabbatical — maybe a permanent one — from movies in which black characters exist primarily to save the souls of white ones?” Amen to that, brother. Let’s work to see each other as human beings–human beings potentially reflecting Christ’s love–and not symbols.