Sunday, March 15, 2009

REVIEW: 'Secret Life of Bees' DVD

Since it was first published in 2002, "The Secret Life of Bees," (Viking Penguin) by Sue Monk Kidd has sold over 5 million copies. The DVD version was released in February after the movie, produced by Twentieth Century Fox, debuted in October 2008. I read the book when it came out and decided to rent the DVD because I hadn’t seen the movie. I wanted to see how much of the sacred female imagery was retained in the film script and am happy to report that much of it remains. As you might expect from the cast credits, the acting is excellent–with Queen Latifah as August Boatwright, and Alicia Keys and Sophie Okonedo as her sisters, May and June, with Dakota Fanning as 14-year-old Lily Owens and Jennifer Hudson as the Owens’ housekeeper, Rosaleen. It was also worth at least the price of rental to see the visuals of the Boatwright sisters’ pink house, their honey-filled kitchen, August’s blue bedroom, and the parlor with its red velvet, doily-bedecked sofas and wooden ship masthead that the Boatwright sisters identify with Mary, Mother of Jesus. In addition, the DVD contains both the movie as shown in theaters and a director’s cut, along with a number of additional features, such as scenes that were cut from the final film, an interview with Sue Monk Kidd and commentary from others.

In case you’re not among the millions who have read the novel, let me mention that the setting of the book (and film) is the Southern USA during the often violent aftermath of President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It is this aspect of the film, as well as the mother-daughter relationship, that most of the reviews focus on. Since these themes have been thoroughly covered in mass media reviews I'm not going to say much about them, but rather focus on aspects that are rarely mentioned in reviews – especially those in the mainstream media: the "Mary" in the parlor and the bee symbolism. (BTW, I usually don’t read other reviews before I review a book or DVD, but since I was trying to decide whether a review from me could add anything, I made an exception in this case.)

Lily and Rosaleen are led to Tiburon SC by a memento left by Lily’s mother who died when Lily was very young. The memento is a label from a jar of "Black Madonna" honey. In the movie, the label's Madonna and child are honey-colored with African facial features. On the reverse side of the label is written: "Tiburon, SC." When Lily and Rosaleen leave home, (Lily to escape an abusive father and Rosaleen to escape violence that occurs when she tries to register to vote) they head to Tiburon and there find the pink house and behind it, the Boatwright honey house and bee farm.

Before getting into the symbolism, let me mention what I feel is one drawback of the movie/DVD version: it sometimes seems to lack flow due to insufficient transitions. I wonder if people who haven’t read the book will be a bit lost because of this. For example, sitting in the kitchen, Lily asks for an explanation of the wood figure in the Boatwright’s parlor. Without further discussion, the film moves abruptly forward several days when the Boatwright sisters and their friends, who in the book call themselves the "Daughters of Mary," have gathered for a worship service.

And speaking of abrupt, let me bounce back to a description of that former ship’s masthead. Here’s how the figure is described in the book:

...a carving of a woman nearly three feet tall....She was as black as she could be, twisted like driftwood from being out in the weather, her face a map of all the storms and journeys she’d been through. Her right arm was raised , as if pointing the way, except her fingers were closed in a fist....She had a faded red heart painted on her breast, and a yellow crescent moon, worn down and crooked, painted where her body would have blended into the ship’s wood.
(p. 70)
The DVD shows the figure not black, but medium brown (at least on my TV), and the "driftwood" has been gussied up with a lavender dress. Her face has the look of a woman around 50, one of several ways in which this image is not consistent with the Christian Virgin. To those familiar with Goddess imagery, she may appear to be a Crone or an ancestor-goddess figure of the type once common among Africans (and others). The red heart doesn’t look all that faded and is slightly above her breast, not on it. The crescent moon (a Goddess symbol) appears neither worn down nor crooked to me. But I like Her! Most especially I like her raised clenched fist!

It’s clear to me that this clenched-fist, assertive Mary is not the same as the maiden who, at the Annunciation (Luke: 1:38) responds passively to the angel by saying: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord: Let it be done to me according to thy word."

This Mary in the parlor, she's no one's handmaid!

In the novel, following the lead of August, whose mother was Roman Catholic, the women worship "Mary" every night after watching the news of the civil rights struggle, by kneeling before her, using rosary beads and repeating the Hail Mary, then crossing themselves "from their foreheads to their navels." The film/DVD lessens the Catholicism: the women stand while praying (you can still catch a few words of the Hail Mary if you listen carefully) and they don’t cross themselves. I like this better. It makes "Mary" more of a Universal Mother figure and better prepares us for August’s and Lily’s conclusions about the nature of their Mary.

In the film/DVD, when the Daughters of Mary convene in the Boatright parlor, in response to Lily’s question about "Mary," the story August tells has been shortened to eliminate the explanation of why the figure is called "Our Lady of Chains" (in the book, August says she got that title not because "Our Lady" was chained, but because she broke the chains with which a slave-owner tried to restrain her, see p. 110); I don’t remember hearing the Chains title used in the film. To read how Kidd combined European Black Madonna imagery with two other figures – an actual boat masthead and another figure related to the title "Our Lady of Chains" – go here. During the "church" service, the Daughters show Rosaleen and Lily how to commune with "Mary" by placing their hands on her heart.

It seems to me that the Boatwright sisters and other "Daughters of Mary," identify the wood figure with the Christian Madonna because that is the only divine female figure they are familiar with. In the novel, in response to Lily’s fears about being parted from Mother Mary if she should ever leave the Boatwright house, she and August have this conversation:
"Listen to me now, Lily. I’m going to tell you something I want you always to remember, all right?"....
"All right," I said, and I felt something electric slide down my spine.
"Our Lady is not some magical being out there somewhere, like a fairy godmother. She’s not the statue in the parlor. She’s something inside of you. Do you understand what I’m telling you?"
"Our Lady is inside me," I repeated, not sure I did.....
I think the theatre version of the movie would have been better if it had included this scene, but it didn’t. However, the scene is included DVD's director’s cut and section of other cut scenes. Eliminating this scene has the effect of making it seem, when Lily repeats a similar statement near the end of the film, that she came to this conclusion on her own, when this concept of divine immanence was something she learned from August, who is not just playing the traditional African American woman’s role of white girl's caretaker, which a number of reviewers objected to, but rather shows that August is Lily’s spiritual mentor and guide; some might even see August as high priestess of the bee goddess.

And speaking of bees, none of the reviews I could find in a web search got the spiritual significance of the bees (the real secret life of the bees?). Bees have a long history of being associated with goddesses including those of Minoan Crete, Egypt, and Greece, to name a few. Melissae, the Latin word for bees, refers to both these goddesses and to their priestesses. Some of the specific connections of Goddesses and bees are: Aphrodite has been called the Queen Bee, Demeter the Mother Bee. In the African Yoruba tradition, Oshun heals the sick with magic honey, is mythologically associated with bees, especially the Queen, and one of her titles is "Owner of Honey."

The Boatwright sisters can be seen as melissae, priestesses of the Bee Goddess, and August, so grandly played by Queen Latifah, as high priestess. She initiates Lily into the priestesshood by showing her how to control the bees with love and how bereft a hive is without a Queen Bee. You think my association of the bees with Goddess symbolism in this book/movie is too much of a stretch? Hah!

If there is any doubt whether Kidd intended this symbolism, let me just mention that she has given Lily the middle name, Melissa. Unfortunately, mention of this was dropped from the film/DVD. But in the book it first appears (p.41) when Lily experiences what may be considered "a call" related to leaving her abusive father:

I heard a voice say, Lily Melissa Owens, your jar is open.
[Italics Kidd’s]

This middle name, Melissa, is used again, sparingly but at times of intensified spirituality in the book (see pp. 64 and 288).

Blessed bees!


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At Wednesday, March 25, 2009 2:25:00 AM, Blogger Ralph said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



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Judith Laura

More blogs about /goddess/feminist theology/spiritual feminism/pagan/feminist spirituality/.