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.


  1. Well done. I’m so glad that someone is talking and writing like this, and I thank you in particular for your close analysis and focused discussion.

  2. Thank you for inflicting the bee movie on yourself in order to write this review for us. You have a convenient knack for being funny and smart at the same time. Any recommendations for books or movies that treat black (or other minority) American characters as people rather than as ideas?

  3. Any comments on Paul Bettany’s turn as a “redneck” (oh, another symbol)? I might get it on DVD eventually just to see him pull that off…

  4. So what is your dissertation? I have never read or seen “The Secret Life of Bees”. Never even heard of it.

  5. Mink, it’s funny that you should ask about Paul Bettany. I knew he was in it but had totally forgotten by the time I saw the movie. While watching, I occasionally thought to myself, “Wow, that actor looks a lot like Paul Bettany.” So I guess he succeeded in not coming across entirely as Paul Bettany. But, yeah, the redneck role is so stereotyped that it’s hard to see how he could have done much interesting with it.

    Brooke, my dissertation was titled “‘Placing Religion’: Twentieth-Century American Women Writers and Spiritual Geography.” It has the requisite academic colon. Basically, I wrote about how women writers use particular places as a way of connecting to Christian tradition. My sneaky purpose was showing how Christianity is actually more consistent with feminist theory (the good parts, anyway) than vague, new-Agey “sacred feminine” stuff is. Sue Monk Kidd falls into the latter category.

  6. What a great post! I haven’t read the book or seen the movie yet (despite many recommendations), but I have wondered about how well a white woman could write a book populated with African-American characters without slipping into racist stereoptypes. I am also grateful for your reminder that those of us who are white must be extra-vigilant to avoid dehumanizing people of color by making them into symbols that save us and assuage us of our cultural sense of guilt. We need to do our own work and really confront our sinful legacy, the sinful and oppressive systems our ancestors put in place in America’s early history and that we have yet to fully dismantle. We can’t get out of this sort of redemptive and repentant work with cheap grace or forgiveness or hope that lets us off the hook for a culture of racism and dehumanization that we still need to struggle against.

  7. Good review. I share your sentiments. Am very tired of comforting Black mammies, caretakers, and saviors (Man on Fire)of white children in films. Beyond tired. Thanks again.

  8. Hmm. Wonder what you thought of The Help, then.

    It is always a risk to write from the perspective of a character whose life is different than your own. But it is just as much as a risk for me, a young woman, to write from the perspective of an old man, and no one criticizes that. I know black woman who revere The Secret Life of Bees.

    You are right, the “black mammie” stereotype is overplayed and one-dimensional, but I’d like to think the dynamics of Secret Life characters are greater than that.

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