By Owen Gleiberman
October 24, 2008 at 04:00 AM EDT

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? In the screen version of Sue Monk Kidd’s smash-hit novel The Secret Life of Bees, 14-year-old Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning) escapes the clutches of her redneck father (Paul Bettany) in 1964 South Carolina by running away from home, accompanied by her caretaker, Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson), who is wanted by the police. (She had dared to insult the racists who tried to prevent her from registering to vote.) In a small-town general store, Lily spots a jar of honey with the mysterious image of a black Madonna on the label. Seeking the source of the jar, she and Rosaleen meet August Boatwright (Queen Latifah), a maternal beekeeper who lives in a cozy pink house and is just as hearty and sweet as the honey Bees she harvests. The two are invited to stay for a while, and so they move in, go to work, and get to know August and her sisters: the regal, gifted June (Alicia Keys), who teaches cello and lowers her shield of pride for no one (even the handsome beau who adores her), and the childlike May (Sophie Okonedo), who is prone to sudden crying jags.

When you read The Secret Life of Bees, you know why the book sold 5 million copies. Kidd is a seductive writer, with a voice that carries just enough moonlight and magnolias to evoke the desultory Southern lyricism of To Kill a Mockingbird. Each character vibrates with mystery. In the movie version, adapted by writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball), the architecture of the plot is about all that remains, apart from a few stray thoughts about queen bees as metaphors. The film has no poetry or atmosphere; it presents the Boathouse women as TV-movie wisps of characters. Latifah glows with benevolent strength, Keys glowers like she’s warming up to star in The Angela Davis Story, and Okonedo is a tremulous wallflower. This has the unfortunate effect — far different from the book’s — of making it seem as if these women had been placed on earth in order to help one confused, distraught white girl find her way. Fanning may look 14, but perhaps because she’s been playing precocious kids for so long, she still acts younger, without the sensual curiosity of the book’s heroine. Lily’s romance with a black teenager, Zachary (Tristan Wilds), should be incendiary, but it falls flat, and her connection to the death of her mother is a Big Event that haunts the movie far too mechanically.

Over the years, we’ve all seen too many anachronistic ”magic Negroes” in movies like Forrest Gump and The Green Mile. The saintly African-American matriarchy of The Secret Life of Bees may appear benign by comparison. Yet the film, set in the civil rights era, has a dated, musty piety that too often evokes the liberal message mongering of that time. The Secret Life of Bees is a lesson — or, rather, a whole series of them — we no longer need to learn. Of course, it’s also a divine-sisterhood-defeats-all chick flick, and on that score there’s no denying that its clichés are rousingly up to date. C

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 110 minutes
  • Gina Prince Bythewood
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