Go behind the scenes of The Secret Life of Bees.
Photo: Everett Collection
A much-read, much-loved novel gets a buzzworthy second life. Rita Williams goes behind the cameras.
The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd's best-selling 2002 novel, takes place in South Carolina, where it gets hot enough to make honey drip from the comb. "Sounds a bit cloying for this African-American," I thought, when I first heard of Kidd's tale about a little white girl who flees her home to take refuge with some black women beekeepers. "What's new about black women nursing whites?" I wondered. It sounded like the same tired slog with the noble, dusky-skinned matriarchs whose reward is the label "Auntie" instead of genuine equity they can take to the bank.

Then O asked me to cover the Fox Searchlight film adaptation of Bees, opening in theaters this month, and there was no way around it: I had to read the book.

Once I started, I couldn't put the thing down.

Here's the story, if your memory needs refreshing. It's 1964. The Civil Rights Act has just passed. The only person who loves motherless, 14-year-old Lily (Dakota Fanning) is her caretaker, Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson). But Rosaleen's attempt to assert her newly enforced right to vote initiates a fracas with racist whites that winds her up in the clink. After Lily springs her, the two go on the lam. Their destination, "Tiburon, S.C.," written on the back of a picture Lily found among her mother's few belongings, turns out to be the location of the Boatwright sisters, August, May, and June (Queen Latifah, Sophie Okonedo, and Alicia Keys, respectively). These beekeeping entrepreneurs, whose business trademark is the Black Madonna, take pity on the fugitives and shelter them. In this household, more is revealed about Lily's deceased mother, and both Lily and Rosaleen begin to heal.

When I found myself in North Carolina last winter, driving the 30 or so miles from Wilmington to the movie set in Watha, the weather was neither hot nor sweet. In fact, the closer I came, the higher this massive bank of fog reared itself up. I could only creep my little car down the road by hewing tight to the shoulder. Finally I saw the flashing blue lights of a police cruiser on my left and the telltale movie trailers on the right; I knew I had found the hive. The Pink House confirmed it. Rising out of the mist like some antebellum drunk dream, it sported bracing white shutters and that staple of Southern architecture, the four-columned porch. The paint job on the house itself was a doozy—the book describes it as "Pepto-Bismol"—and I later learned they had to paint it three times before they got it right.

Somewhat daunted by a veritable army of bustling worker bees, I went inside past the parlor where the figurehead statue of the Black Madonna appeared to be overseeing the video monitor. The worker bees were jamming sound and lighting equipment, cameras, and props onto a kitchen set, where Queen Latifah, Sophie Okonedo, and Alicia Keys waited, bundled up in industrial-strength coats over their summer dresses. Producer Lauren Shuler Donner—on set that day although she had four movies in production—graciously offered me a pair of gloves, since my fingers were so cold I could barely write. Dakota Fanning and Jennifer Hudson lounged nearby, while makeup artists dabbed on Hudson's artificial stitches (a souvenir of Rosaleen's run-in with the police) in preparation for the next take.

"You look just like my mother's sister," Queen Latifah said, flashing me the smile that made her a star. Before I could respond, the director of photography yelled, "Quiet on the set!" We held our breath. "Action," called out director Gina Prince-Bythewood. The radio came on, playing the Irma Thomas tune "Break-A-Way." Jennifer began dancing the twist, and Sophie did the swim while scrambling eggs.

Sue Monk Kidd and I secreted ourselves in the top room of the house among a jumble of chairs, lights, and shelves of honey.

"Why write about these black women when you're white?" I asked her.

"Because I grew up surrounded by black women. I feel they are like hidden royalty dwelling among us, and we need to rupture our old assumptions and develop the willingness to see them as they are," she replied. When I asked her to tell me the origin of this story, she grew pensive, closing her dark eyes almost as if she were meditating.

"As a girl, I lived in a country house where at least 50,000 bees hived within the walls of one of our shut-off rooms," she said. "When I went in there, I could hear them humming—honey leaking through the wall and puddling on the floor. That image stayed with me for years before I decided to write it. And then when I finally did begin, I was told it might sell as a short story but not as a novel. I sold the short story. … But it wouldn't let me go. Four years later, I had to go back and write the novel."

Not everyone falls in love with the idea of The Secret Life of Bees. There's honey, and then there's saccharine. Sometimes tenderness gets confused with sentimentality. "I received the book but never read it," said Prince-Bythewood. "About five years later, I hear the movie is going to be made, and I had this pang. I read the book in one sitting—and what got me was Lily confessing to August, 'I am unlovable.' Then I knew I had to do it."

It took producer Shuler Donner seven years to assemble the right team. I was struck by how smoothly they worked together. Such focus. No tantrums. No stars pouting in trailers. There was a camaraderie, as if everyone—black and white, men and women—had agreed to lay it on the line to get this film finished, even if it meant longer days or chilblains. (Dakota Fanning and Jennifer Hudson even had to suck on ice before a shoot so their breath wouldn't condense when they said their lines.) Under the gaze of the Black Madonna, Sue Monk Kidd's story has prevailed, with a power of its own and a sweetness strong enough to burst through walls.


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