Queen Latifah is the kind of actor who makes you sit taller, breathe deeper, feel stronger.
Her poignant work in Gina Prince-Bythewood's The Secret Life of Bees merits a pillar in the movie colonnade alongside those of Gary Cooper, John Wayne and Denzel Washington.
In the film soulfully adapted from the novel by Sue Monk Kidd, Latifah plays August Boatwright, queen bee, worker bee, beekeeper supreme.
August is eldest sister, spiritual elder and all-round consoler of a community including Lily (Dakota Fanning), a motherless runaway whose father is as abusive as the South Carolina culture around her. In August, Lily finds stability and strength. And in Lily, Fanning - as watchful and still as the young Leonardo Di Caprio - has a role that reveals her acting depths.
August presides over an apiary that produces "Black Madonna" honey. And in this cinematic pieta more vinegary than sweet, she brings the bruised and broken Lily back to productive life.
The film is set in the rural South in 1964, when relations between black and white can be most uncivil, even though President Johnson has signed the Civil Rights Act. A violent encounter with her father sends Lily and the family housekeeper, Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson), looking for a safe harbor. But when they leave the family peach farm, Rosaleen, who is black and wants to register to vote, is roughed up and arrested by bigots. Lily liberates her.
Lily treasures a memento of her mother, an image of a black Madonna and child, that leads her to the Boatwright's Victorian, a peaceful island in a stormy sea of racial and gender inequality.
Gaily painted Pepto-Bismol pink, the Boatwright sanctuary is home to August and her sisters, June and May, likewise named for the months of their birth but otherwise unlike their earth mama sister, ever accepting and cheerful. Fierce June (Alicia Keys) is the thinker, a musician and NAACP activist disapproving of August's past work as a Mammy. Emotional May (Sophie Okonedo) is the empath who feels - and frees - the pain of others. In the Boatwright hive, the three sisters show Lily and Rosaleen different ways of how to thrive.
Prince-Bythewood, whose prior feature was the wonderful Love and Basketball, has empathy for her characters, even Lily's violent father T Ray (Paul Bettany, scary good). Though her material skirts the cliche of the "magic Negro," that mystical black who helps a Caucasian become more spiritual, Prince-Bythewood shows the difference between a black matriarch as a Mammy and a black woman as a mother figure.
Though the filmmaker relies a little too heavily on '60s pop and R&B tunes to set the tone, her visual rhythms are original and get the most out of an ensemble that includes Nate Parker (The Great Debaters) as Neil, June's swain.
Rogier Stoffers, the gifted Dutch cinematographer who shot Mongol, beautifully captures the lush, rock-dotted landscape (North Carolina doubling for South) without making it look picture postcard-y.
The filmmakers give Latifah and Fanning room to create characters that breathe in the sweet smell of clover and breathe out the contented sigh of independence.
The Secret Life of Bees *** (out of four stars)
Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood. With Queen Latifah, Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Hudson, Alicia Keys, Sophie Okonedo, Nate Parker, Tristan Wilds and Paul Bettany. Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 50 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (thematic material and some violence)
Playing at: Ritz East
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or email@example.com. Read her blog, Flickgrrl, at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/