A young woman fights off her brutal husband; a gun goes off; a marble spins on the floor where a toddler sits unattended. From B-movie beginnings, The Secret Life of Bees, a family drama set in the civil-rights-era South, chugs along pleasantly like a television special tailored for the crossover female market. Which is basically what it is, though it drops tantalizing hints that it has more on its mind than a benign tale of substitute mothering across the color line.
When next we meet the bereft white tot, it's 1964, the year Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. Lily (the ever-capable Dakota Fanning) has grown into a teenager under the dubious care of her bullying father (Paul Bettany, doing a glassy-eyed imitation of Brad Dourif on a bender), who bolsters his daughter's self-esteem by making her stand on a pile of grits for hours and feeding her conviction that she murdered her mother. Sensitive and insecure, Lily dreams of bees swarming out of her bedroom walls and thinks of escape. When her caregiver, Rosaleen (played with more guts than talent by Jennifer Hudson), gets beaten up by white-trash racists on her way to register to vote, the two young women make a break for safety, which they find in the home of the three black Boatwright sisters, motherless themselves but more solidly equipped for life by upbringing and adversity than Lily.
Secret Life is adapted from the novel by white Southern writer Sue Monk Kidd and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, whose well-received 2000 movie Love & Basketball blended lively commercial instincts with a powerful sense of street-level racial politics. Commerce gets the upper hand this time around, bathing the Boatwright habitat in a honeyed glow, with the soundtrack's jaunty Motown music tempered by a soft guitar when the legacy of Southern racism pokes in its unwelcome head. The sisters are sweetly folksy Little Women, relentlessly role-modeling the good life for Lily. Damaged, childlike May, played with cloying innocence by British actress Sophie Okonedo, dispenses universal goodwill. Headstrong, musical June (Alicia Keys), who's active in the fledgling NAACP, shows Lily how to push back. And the fact that the eldest, August (Queen Latifah), makes honey for a living, tells you all you need to know about what she can do for our poor, confused runaway.
Doubt must be harbored about any movie in which Queen Latifah is made to say "Ever' li'l thing wants to be loved" without rolling her eyes. Latifah is a favorite of mine, whose pride in her physical bounty reminds me a lot of another favorite. Like Dolly Parton, Latifah deftly juggles maternal warmth with come-hither sexuality, but her twinkly benevolence contains a hidden warning: I'm here to get along with everyone, but don't test me. As the glamorous singing matriarch Motormouth Maybelle, she eclipsed a capering John Travolta and almost everyone else in Hairspray. But stately black actresses approaching middle age always run the risk of getting locked in as the face of Black Equanimity — and here, Latifah succumbs without a struggle.
In a key scene, August, whose smiling dignity is inspired by Southern legends of the Black Madonna, explains to her eager new apprentice Lily all the different ways in which bees show their love by building solid families and communities. That's nice, but for a movie with serious black aristocracy (the Will Smiths) behind it, Secret Life waters down its own compelling racial subtext, which seeks to recover the civil-war era for those black women who made life better for the white female bosses on whom they also depended. Only near the end, when August reveals the nature of her connection with and ambivalent love for Lily's dead mother, does Secret Life fleetingly complicate the hoary old Gone With the Wind–fed delusion that the love of poor, black nannies for their white charges was pure and undiluted. Is that Hattie McDaniel I hear, whooping for joy from beyond the grave?