The Secret Life of Bees is a 2008 American drama film, adapted from the novel of the same name by Sue Monk Kidd. The film was directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and produced by Will Smith, with his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, as executive producer. The film is noted for Queen Latifah's critically acclaimed performance as August Boatwright. The film was released in North America on October 17, 2008 and in the United Kingdomon December 5, 2008.
Set in South Carolina in 1964, this is the tale of Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning), a 14-year-old girl who is haunted by the memory of her late mother Deborah Owens (played by Hilarie Burton). To escape her lonelylife and troubled relationship with her father T-Ray (played by Paul Bettany), Lily flees with Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson), her caregiver and only friend, to a South Carolina town that holds the secret to her mother's past. Taken in by the intelligent and independent Boatwright sisters — August (Queen Latifah), May (Sophie Okonedo) and June (Alicia Keys) — Lily finds solace in their mesmerizing world of beekeeping and develops a romance with her new friend Zach (Tristan Wilds). She learns about female power as the Boatwright sisters show her their black Virgin Mary, her mother's past and much more.
The movie opens in 1964, during the Civil Rights Movement. "I killed my mother when I was four years old, that's what I knew about myself. She was all I wanted and I took her away. Nothing else much mattered," says Lily's voiceover.
In the night, Lily sees many bees in her room and tells her father, but T-Ray yells at her to go back to bed. Frustrated, Lily runs into their peach tree orchard and digs up a box she buried there. The box contains her mother's gloves, a small photograph of her mother, and a flat wood carving of the Black Madonna. Lily puts on the gloves, and holds the photograph close to her stomach. While Lily lies staring at the stars and talking to her mother's spirit, she hears her father calling. Hurriedly, Lily takes off the gloves and slips the items back into the box and starts to rebury it. While she is buttoning her blouse, her father approaches her. He accosts her, simultaneously searching for the anonymous boy he assumes Lily is out in the dark with. As there is no one else, T-Ray takes Lily home. After they arrive, T-Ray punishes Lily by pouring dried grits on the kitchen floor, and forcing her to kneel on them for an hour.
The next morning, Rosaleen, the housekeeper surprises Lily with a cake for her 14th birthday. As T-Ray enters, Rosaleen states that she is going to take Lily into town to buy her a training bra. T-Ray reluctantly hands her money and sits to eat the breakfast Lily cooked for him. Lily asks him to tell her about her mother as her birthday gift, but he says very little, muttering "Happy birthday," as he walks out of the room.
When Rosaleen and Lily walk uptown, they are confronted by three racist men who insult Rosaleen, and ask her if she can spell her name. Rosaleen pours her jar of tobacco spit to spell out her name on their feet. She is beaten up and arrested. After T-Ray and Lily get home, T-Ray grounds Lily to her bedroom and he and Lily argue, prompting T-Ray to tell her that her mother left them both and that she didn't care for either of them. When Lily calls him a liar, he again tells her to stay in her room. Lily waits until he is gone before she writes a letter saying "People who tell lies like you should burn in Hell. Don't bother to look for me." After setting the note on the table, she grabs the bag she has packed and goes to the hospital "colored ward" to find Rosaleen. They run away to a town where Lily's mother was thought to have once lived, called Tiburon. They find a honey jar with the same picture of the Virgin Mary that Lily had. When they ask who made the honey, they are led to the house of August Boatwright and her sisters, May and June. May had a twin, April, who is revealed to have died during their childhood, leaving May permanently traumatized and empathetic to the point of being overwhelmed. Her condition makes her have difficulties distinguishing others' problems from hers. She sees everyone's problems as her concern and she has difficulties coping with her "extra problems." Lily lies and says that she is an orphan, that Rosaleen is a nanny, and that they have no place to stay. August offers to let them help with the honey in exchange for shelter, much to June's dismay.
Lily experiences growing up in their household and, for the first time ever, lives with a caring family. June has a boyfriend named Neil, who is trying to marry her, but she always refuses. Lily questions August as to why she uses "black" Mary pictures. She claims that she was sent by God to help African Americans have peace and equality. When Lily is introduced to the local church, Lily blacks out when the memories of the night her mother died begin to come to her. Lily discovers a wall outside of the house that has little pieces of paper stuffed between the holes. It was built for May after April died. August claimed that they were psychically linked to one another and were like a single person. After April died, May became very emotional and easily broken down by sad situations. She would write all the things that troubled her and put them into the wall.
Lily and a boy named Zach who works with the bees become friends. On the ride to town to deliver honey, Lily confides in Zach the truth of their situation and the reason why she came to August. He gives her a notebook because she claimed to want to be a writer. They decide to watch a movie together but Lily sits in the "colored" section. This incites a racist mob who kidnap Zach and call Lily names for choosing to associate with him. Zach's mother and the Boatwright family are very worried and concerned. June and August decide not to tell May of Zach's disappearance for fear of what it would do to her fragile mental state.
Incidentally, Zach's mother comes to the house to pray before the statue of the Black Madonna in the living room and runs into May afterwards. She confides in an unknowing May who subsequently goes into shock. It is later discovered that her upset and dismay led her to drown herself by placing a large rock upon her chest and lying down in a shallow section of the river by their home. She writes a suicide note to August and June, claiming that she was too tired of carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders, and that she would be much happier with her sister and parents in Heaven. Soon after her death, Zach returns, albeit bruised and distraught. After her funeral, August and June slowly begin to recover from their loss, with June even finally agreeing to marry Neil, whom she had broken up with in a fit of indecisive anger and fear.
Lily shows August the picture of her mother, and August instantly recognizes her as Deborah, Lily's mother. As August and Lily discuss Lily's mother, Lily confesses that she, while trying to help her mother, wound up killing her. She also confesses her belief that Zach's disappearance was all her fault, as well, so she needs to leave, convinced it is best for everyone that she leave since she is unlovable and destroys all that she comes across. Lily breaks down crying and runs to the honey house, where she breaks several jars. August finds her and gives over the things that her mother left when she went back to get Lily, though Lily doesn't believe her. Lily receives her mother's old comb, pin, a piece of poetry, and a picture of her mother with baby Lily. This shows that Deborah did love her daughter. Soon after Lily meets with Zach and they start to talk about each others futures. Lily confesses she loves English and wants to become a writer as Zach confesses he wants to become a lawyer. They share a kiss and Zach gives her a necklace telling Lily to never forget their story and she smiles and say she won't.
Later on, T-Ray comes to the Boatwright home looking for Lily. When he sees Lily wearing her mother's pin, he mistakes her for her mother for a second and proceeds to grab and drag her out of the house, all the while telling her she can't leave him. In a moment of panic, Lily calls him 'Daddy', causing him to come to himself. Lily tells him she's staying there, and after August shows up to calm the scene and assure him they'll take care of her, he reluctantly gives August permission to take care of Lily for as long as she wanted to stay there. As T-Ray drives off, he admits that the day Deborah left, she wasn't only coming back for her stuff, but coming back for Lily. He says he lied because she wasn't coming back for him.
Lily's voice-over states that she thought, as T-Ray drove off, saying "Good riddance", he was really saying "Lily, you'll be better off here with all of these mothers."
Lily is shown writing the contents of the entire story into the notebook that Zach gave her, and she puts it in May's wall and is shown wearing Zach's necklace. She walks off into the honey house as the scene fades to black.
- Queen Latifah as August Boatwright
- Jennifer Hudson as Rosaleen Daise (The sisters named her July in the end.)
- Alicia Keys as June Boatwright
- Dakota Fanning as Lily Owens
- Sophie Okonedo as May Boatwright
- Paul Bettany as T-Ray Owens
- Hilarie Burton as Deborah Owens
- Tristan Wilds as Zach Taylor
- Nate Parker as Neil
- Shondrella Avery as Greta
Production began on January 7, 2008, in Lumberton, North Carolina. and ended a few months later. The film was screened in September 2008 at the 33rd Annual Toronto International Film Festival, and had an October 17, 2008 theatrical release.
The Secret Life of Bees received mixed reviews. According to Rotten Tomatoes (which gave it a rating of 58%), the critical consensus was "The Secret Life of Bees has moments of charm, but is largely too maudlin and sticky-sweet."Writing in The New York Times, reviewer A. O. Scott thought the film to be "a familiar and tired fable", but Roger Ebertfound it "enchanting".
The movie was No. 3 at the North American box office for its opening weekend with $10,527,799. As of December 13, 2008, the film has made $47,270,658 in the United States and Canada. The movie won the awards for "Favorite Movie Drama" and "Favorite Independent Movie" at the 35th People's Choice Awards.
The film also garnered seven NAACP Image Award nominations, which include Outstanding Motion Picture, Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture (Queen Latifah, Dakota Fanning), Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture (Nate Parker), and Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture (Alicia Keys, Jennifer Hudson, and Sophie Okonedo). The movie won the Image Award for Outstanding Motion Picture.