secret-life-of-bees_web.jpgIt was only a few years ago that Jennifer Hudson made her debut as an actress in Dreamgirls.  Playing the strong Effie was not only challenging, but also called for some serious no-nonsense attitude and great vocal pipes. Hudson carried it off like a champ; she even has an Academy Award to prove it. 

Personally, I found Hudson’s Effie and Louise (Sex and the City, the movie) to be great characters.  But Hudson’s portrayal seemed to be held back; like she didn’t want to lose herself too much in the characters.  I’m glad she’s learned a thing or two for her latest project. It shows.
Hudson, along with other newbie actors and actresses, have begun to come into their own in The Secret Life of Bees. These actors have decidedly improved their acting skills just in time to make this movie the great film that it is.

Bees is the story of Lily Owens (played by Dakota Fanning), a 14-year old girl who is dealing with a lot of emotional stress and trauma. Lily is a white girl who flees her 1960s-era, segregationist hometown with her black nanny, Rosaleen Daise (Hudson) to escape her brutish father and the town’s bigotry.

Along the way, she stumbles on the most colorful house I’ve ever seen; which actually looks pretty good.  Set around the time the Civil Rights Bill was passed into law, the movie depicts Rosaleen and Lily finding love and acceptance in the most unlikely of places.

The cast includes Queen Latifah as August Boatwright, Sophie Okonedo of Hotel Rwanda fame as May Boatwright, Alicia Keys as June Boatwright, Nate Parker as Neil, Paul Bettany as Terrence “T. Ray” Owens, and Tristan Wilds as Zach Taylor.

Each actor in this ensemble transforms himself or herself into the unlikeliest of people, and that makes this movie shine.

Director Gina Prince-Bythewood showcased the contrast of Lily’s old life and her new one with stark differences.  Lily’s home, where her father lives, is dirty, filled with bugs, and has no life to it. 

By contrast, August’s house is painted calypso pink on the outside, and in rich colors on the inside. It has beautifully dressed women, and people with lots of smiles on their faces.  Prince makes August’s house the safe haven filled with love that Lily has been looking for her whole life, but never could seem to find.  I loved Prince’s script, as well.  She gave it a breath-taking visual that is awe-inspiring.

Prince’s screenplay is based on the novel of the same name written by Sue Monk Kidd. Both Kidd and Prince churned out a great tale of love, acceptance and coming-of-age.  Lily’s story (I won’t ruin it for you) is sad, but what she gets in the end more than makes up for a lifetime of hurt.  That kind of story causes me to wonder why I hadn’t bothered to read the novel while it was on all of the best-sellers’ lists for weeks.   

I said that Miracle at St. Anna deserves an Oscar.  I’m not taking that back.  But The Secret Life of Bees also needs to be nominated for its interesting, true-to-life tale about growing up in the old South.  Of course, this great feat isn’t due only to the director/screenwriter and novelist.  The actors played a major role in this production.

Latifah, no stranger to Oscar-winning performances, is more elegant in Bees than any other role I’ve seen. She still has that tough edge for which she’s famous, but the feminine dresses and colors soften her look and, in turn, soften her character, who is like the best aunt anyone could want.

Parker, whom I interviewed for last year’s The Great Debaters, said that he, along with his Great Debaters cast members, didn’t have any upcoming projects at that time.  They were all considering their next roles very carefully.  I’m delighted to see that Parker chose wisely.  His previous role was a man living in the early twentieth century. So he is no stranger to his character, and pulls off his in-love-but-rejected Neil quite nicely.

Keys, a veritable baby when it comes to acting, is prim and snobby; a very different kind of person than in any of her previous work.  She is great as June.  She almost makes the audience forget that June needs to be told off on a daily basis, and she makes them like her.

Also, Okonedo deserves a mention for playing someone who isn’t quite there. Given her thick African accent, I’m sure trying to get the southern twang down perfectly was a job in itself. Okonedo’s performance is different and excellent. Yet it was strange that the audience seemed to think she was funny every time her character cried over a tragedy.  I’m sure Prince did not have laughter in mind when she filmed those scenes.

Bettany and Wilds are both seasoned actors in their own rights.  As T. Ray and Zach, respectively, each actor showed the internal dilemma their characters have over the same girl, and caused strong emotions in their audience members.

Unfortunately, Bees is not playing in enough theaters for everyone to have a great bee experience.  Simply packing the theaters showing the film would be a definite invitation for Fox Searchlight Productions to add more theaters, so more people can enjoy the movie going experience that is The Secret Life of Bees.  I know I did.