Happy Friday everybody! I’ve chosen a nice summery film for this week since it is, after all, the first week of summer. I’m noticing a trend, a lot of movies with strong female leads are about strong southern women, including The Secret Life of Bees (shout out to Alison Jajac for the recommendation!), which is an excellent film based on the novel by Sue Monk Kidd.
This is one of those books I’ve been meaning to read forever but just haven’t gotten around to, I know I shouldn’t have seen the movie first but it happens, I’ll probably still read the book anyway, I’m crazy like that.
The Secret Life of Bees is the story of 14 year old Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning), a white girl living in South Carolina with her neglectful and abusive father in 1964. Her mother is dead, and the only female figure (and caring relationship) she has is with her housekeeper Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson). After Rosaleen is beaten by white men in town for attempting to register to vote, and Lily’s father T. Ray (Paul Bettany) reveals that her mother abandoned her before she died, Lily sneaks Rosaleen out of the hospital where she is being held, and they hitchhike to Tiburon, a town not far away that was written on a “Black Mary” picture which belonged to Lily’s mother. Seeing the same “Black Mary” image on a jar of honey once in Tiburon, the two are directed to the home of the honey-maker, August Boatwright (Queen Latifah), who agrees to let them stay in her idyllic pink house.
August lives with her two sisters, June (Alicia Keys) and May (Sophie Okonedo). The three are financially comfortable, well-respected, educated, cultured, and un-married. Unfortunately this was a rare combination to see in Black women during the 60’s. Set amidst the height of the civil rights movement in the south, during what is known as the “freedom summer”, the movie captures the feelings of change, hope, and fear that people living during that time experienced everyday.
Suddenly Lily and Rosaleen, two women beaten down by life, find themselves in a sanctuary, and for the first time in either of their lives are given the freedom to explore, and come to know, who they really are. Lily is so motherless it’s gut-wrenching, she wants so badly to be loved and is so utterly neglected, your heart can’t help but go out to her. In the Boatwright sister’s home both she and Rosaleen learn that women can be strong, and they each find that strength within themselves as well. It is lovely how throughout the movie the characters blossom, both mentally and physically, simply from love, encouragement, and friendship.
I don’t want to give anything else away but as you can imagine this is a story about women, more specifically mothers, and the search for the mother within, which teaches us how to take care of ourselves, and how to cope with what life gives us.
On another note, did Dakota Fanning ever have an awkward stage? Seriously, I wish I was that well-adjusted at her age. She plays the stifled desperation of this character exceedingly well, in this role she breaks out of any “child star” box she might have been trapped in, it’s such a reserved performance which makes it all the more moving, and it’s great that she is exactly the same age as the character, she fully embodies Lily.
I have to point out how amazing Paul Bettany is in this film as well—plus points for him for saying he wanted to do this film because it is “about women” and that “there aren’t enough films that are about women”, that actually isn’t a direct quote, but it’s the gist. He does a fantastic job of keeping the odious character of T.Ray from being one-dimensional. We hate his character, while at the same time Bettany finds some little shred of humanity to grab on to, which keeps the character slightly gray.
It’s interesting that three of the main Black female characters in this film are portrayed by singers—they all do a spectacular job don’t get me wrong, but it does draw attention to the fact that there are very few Black actresses out there who are considered big enough names to headline a movie. And that’s a shame.
The Secret Life of Bees is a beautiful female coming of age story which we don’t see too often. Two others that I could think of both feature young women in search of information about a mother who has died, both My Girl (I guess more the sequel My Girl 2, but they both deal with this theme) and Stealing Beauty, I’m sure there are others too (let me know if you think of any!). The connection between mother and daughter is exceptionally strong, and when broken, leaves a gaping hole. This film speaks to anyone seeking understanding in a situation they have no control over, and even if you can’t relate directly to the characters, all of us can understand the need for family, for acceptance, and for freedom.
I’m a geek and I love listening to commentary on movies (especially while I paint) so when I was listening to the director, actors, and producers talk about this film I found it moving how close this story was to their hearts. It’s mentioned over and over how low the budget was for the film. You would think with such big names attached, and the pull of a bestselling novel as well, it would have received better backing. Once again the message is that not enough people want to see films like this which are specifically made for women, I find that so depressing.
Some critics called out the story for being too “icky-sweet”, we hear that a lot about films made for women. It was also criticized for not having strong enough male characters, which I think is pretty funny because it passes the Bechdel test in reverse for men, despite being a film largely devoted to its female characters. I also think the male characters are far more fleshed out and 3 dimensional than most women usually are in heavily male dominated movies, or even male characters in your standard big budget film. Maybe I’m sensitive, but both of these critiques just scream “eww, chick flick, gross”. Men can keep making the same boring action/bromance movies over and over again, but this gets referred to as a “tired fable” when I can barely think of two movies that are remotely close to it.
So, put it on your Netflix queue, and support films made for, by, and featuring strong women characters! You might also need a box of tissues, but you won’t regret it, I promise.
I do want to talk for a minute about this “strong southern women” thing. When I typed in the term to Google I got hundreds of thousands of results. When I typed in the term “strong northern women”, Google asked me if I meant “strong southern women”. So why is this such a dominant archetype? Is it more unusual to have a strong, independent women in the south which in turn makes the character stand out more, or seem more compelling in her strength? Are northern women (or western or eastern) already thought of as “strong” making the archetype less of an anomaly? I’m trying to think of movies that feature female characters that fit into an archetype of another location. Strong New York woman? Meh, all I can think of is Lost in Yonkers for some reason. It seems that if that archetype ever existed it has been overshadowed by the ladies of Sex and the City, who unfortunately don’t appear nearly as empowering or interesting as the representations of their southern counterparts. I’m not from the south so I don’t know, but I’d love to hear if anyone has some ideas about where this model of feminine power comes from. It’s interesting that although the south is usually considered more conservative than the north (or at least the eastern and western seaboards) they seem to trump us in this respect. Maybe it’s a paradigm grown out of repression? I’d love to know other people’s opinions on this, especially if there are any southern ladies out there!
Have a great weekend, and get out and enjoy that sun!