This is no B-Movie
Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood
Screenplay by Gina Prince-Bythewood
Based on the novel by Sue Monk Kidd
Starring Dakota Fanning, Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson, Alicia Keys, Sophie Okonedo
In 1965, after receiving a vision involving bees, little Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning) runs away from her abusive Southern father and into the company of three African-American bee-keeper sisters producing a brand of honey called Black Madonna.
Wise August Boatwright (Queen Latifah) is the leader of this literal sorority; angry June (Alicia Keyes) and overwrought May (Sophie Okonedo) help watch over young Zach (Tristan Wilds of The Wire), August’s handsome pubescent godson with a Sam Cooke voice and a dream of being a lawyer, while offering refuge to Lily and her father’s housekeeper Rosaline (Jennifer Hudson).
At this quasi-commune, Lily begins learning how racially-privileged she’s been (as signified by her given name), despite her own abuse. She’s struck by the cultural sophistication of these women, including their love of fine music and furnishings, and their spiritual practices which include the creation of their own “Wailing Wall” and their rites involving their own Black Madonna (a recovered female statue they’ve inserted into the global choir of black madonnas found everywhere from the Vatican to ancient Egypt’s Aset holding son Heru). While the drama of the just-passed Civil Rights Voting Act unfolds around them, Lily (obviously) learns to heal and to love through her sojourn with these women and Zach, but it’s the sometimes terrifying and violent how that matters and moves.
The under-celebrated Queen Latifah is, as always, superb; she’s quite simply one of the best and most versatile actors of her generation, effortlessly gliding among her roles from sexy to tough to wise to funny without ever tripping. Her invocation to her congregation before their Madonna is one of the most electrifying addresses I’ve ever heard in a film without ever even glancing at bombastic.
The Boatwrights’ guidance of Lily, courtesy of a fine adapted script, never ventures into the territory of the “super-duper magical negro," in which Black characters are simple-minded, magical, devoid of their own sovereign emotional experience and exist solely to help White protagonists recover their lives. Each Boatwright sister has her own pain, joy and complete world which we’re blessed to witness. Alicia Keyes, despite a strange make-up job that makes her look almost mannequin-like, perfectly underplays her role as the coldly-angry NAACP youth activist, injecting minute but powerful doses of warmth, tenderness and allure.
And despite being cute, Dakota Fanning never sickens us with cutesiness, masterfully navigating Lily as strong yet vulnerable, clever but sometimes foolish, and rendering one of the most romantic relationships I’ve seen in film. Perhaps that shouldn’t surprise; because child characters don’t have sex, writers and directors are forced to focus on actual romance long enough to remember that film “sex” is usually the nadir of romance and rarely even sexy.
There are a few problems; housekeeper Rosaline is under-developed, the third act is a draggy, and three anachronistic and culturally-unmatched songs in the score music disrupt the mood, as when Lily sits with her feet in a creek and the music crashes to TV-ad self-consciousness.
But overall, the film is magnificent, and contains, for me, a literally wonder-ful array of wisdom-jewels revolving around its titular beasties, from “The world is one big bee yard” to “No bee wants to sting you;” moments in which we behold the operation of the honey centrifuge or how bees are “calmed” (rather than the more honest “gased”) by smoke while their honey is collected (stolen) are so gentle and pure they made me want to start up bee-keeping immediately.