Let it bee
A good part in a film by a respected director, based on a bestselling novel, is often the most actors can hope for. For the stellar cast of The Secret Life of Bees, the opportunity to participate brought individual revelations and personal history lessons, as well as a chance to show the world a little-explored area of race relations in the Deep South.
Set in 1964, the year the Civil Rights Act passed, The Secret Life of Bees chronicles the relationship between neglected 14-year-old Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning) and a collection of strong, nurturing African-American women, beginning with her caretaker, Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson).
On the run from Lily's father (Paul Bettany) and from the law following Rosaleen's unlawful arrest, the two of them find an unusual sanctuary in a bright pink house owned by the cultured Boatwright sisters: honey maker August (Queen Latifah), June (Alicia Keys) and May (Sophie Okonedo, an Oscar nominee for Hotel Rwanda).
After its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, at a press conference with all leading ladies present, writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood explained she was interested in explaining the unsung place black women have historically had in the lives of white children in the South.
"A lot of [civil rights-era] movies were just about the struggle but not about the people within the struggle, so that was one of the main focuses of the film, in addition to telling the story of black women who took care of white children back then, giving them a voice," she said.
Researching their parts, some of the cast members consulted with older family members who lived through the era. Fanning, a Georgia native, spoke to her grandmother, who shared a personal story paralleling the movie.
"She was raised by a black woman," Fanning said. "My mom was also raised by the same women in my grandmother's house."
Hudson almost did too good a job evoking the period's hatred and fear. "When I got to North Carolina I wasn't able to sleep because the only image I had in my mind of the South was of that time, which was terrifying for me," she recalled.
Despite the screenplay presenting Latifah with a more nurturing character than she's played previously and giving Keys her most substantial big-screen role to date, both found something reassuringly familiar in their parts, as did Okonedo.
"With August, who she is, who I am, who this amazing cast I got to work with is, I felt very comfortable between takes," Latifah explained. "These are my sisters, on and off set."
Keys, who plays the most stubborn, politically active and guarded Boatwright, said, "I actually found that June came to me at a time in my life when I really needed her. The way that she's so strong, but that's just masking a lot of vulnerability, I think that's something that we as women put on a lot. I understand that feeling very much."
To connect with a character who feels emotional pain around her as deeply as a knife wound, Okonedo explained graphically, "I just imagined that all my skin was off and all my nerves were exposed. I'm quite a sensitive person, so it was nice being able not to have to hide it."
On a location shoot that recreated the summer of 1964 North Carolina in the winter of 2008, the crew couldn't help noticing parallels between their story and current events in the state, where Sen. Barack Obama won the Democratic primary. Each hopes that The Secret Life of Bees will spotlight the long, rocky road between the civil rights struggle and the first black major-party nominee for the presidency.
"A lot of people of our generation don't know the history," Keys said. "They don't tell it to you in school very well. And then our own families, some of us have very young mothers, very young grandmothers, and they just don't know."
As Latifah put it, "I didn't think I'd change the world by making this movie, but the world changed while we were making this movie."
"The Secret Life