MICHEL MARTIN, host:
We're going to move now back to this country and back in time. It's 1964, and big events are changing the world. Lyndon Johnson has just signed the Civil Rights Act into law. The U.S. and Russia are competing to explore the moon. But in 14-year-old Lily Owens' little southern town, her hard-hearted father and mean-spirited neighbors don't seem to want anything to change. So when Lily and her housekeeper, Rosaleen, find themselves in one painful confrontation after another, they decide to disappear, and they end up at the grand, pink house of three bee-keeping sisters.
(Soundbite of film "The Secret Life of Bees")
Ms. JENNIFER HUDSON: (As Rosaleen Daise) Whoever she is, I hope she made honey (unintelligible).
Ms. DAKOTA FANNING: (As Lily Owens) I like it.
Ms. HUDSON: (As Rosaleen Daise) Don't go getting your hopes up, all right?
Ms. FANNING: (As Lily Owens) They got nowhere else to go.
MARTIN: There they begin their journey toward transformation and peace. That's the story of "The Secret Life of Bees." It was Sue Monk Kidd's debut novel published in 2002. It was a phenomenon. The novel stayed on the New York Times Bestseller List for two years, and now it has a new life on screen, in a film featuring an amazing ensemble of some of this country's biggest African-American women stars, directed by one of Hollywood's few African-American woman directors.
Author of "The Secret Life of Bees," Sue Monk Kidd, is with us now, along with one of those amazing stars, Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson and director Gina Prince-Bythewood. Welcome.
Ms. GINA PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD (Director, "The Secret Life of Bees"): Thank you for having us.
Ms. SUE MONK KIDD (Author, "The Secret Life of Bees"): It's nice to be here.
Ms. JENNIFER HUDSON (Actress, "The Secret Life of Bees" ): So much diva-ness(ph), so little time. Just after, jump right in.
MARTIN: Sue Monk Kidd, this was not your first book. Your first books were memoirs. This was your first novel. Where did these characters come from? Where did the story come from?
Ms. KIDD: I think the story was conjured straight out of my imagination and also my memory. I would say most of it out of my imagination, but I blended in memories of growing up as a little girl in Georgia, a small town with great racial divides, segregation. I was about Lily's age in 1964, so I have that impression on me that Lily also had, and I gave her a lot of things that were from my life. You know, little traits and things.
MARTIN: Jennifer, why did you want to be part of this project?
Ms. HUDSON: I was introduced to the script before the book. And just reading the script, it was so powerful, and I love to be a part of like - just things that I feel have great substance, and this is definitely one of those projects.
MARTIN: You played Rosaleen, who is - really is white. There have been films that have featured themes that have been of importance to African-Americans that they felt very deeply and they didn't do well at the box office. There's this extra sense of hurt. And I wondered if you feel pressure because of that history.
Ms. HUDSON: You know, it's not about pressure. Again, I choose projects based on what I'm passionate about. You know, I have a family, so for me to take two years out of my life to do a project, I have to feel it with everything, and I really felt like - that way with this book and the story.
And you know, for me, I think the reason that African-Americans have not always run to period pieces, and I, myself, is the way that we've been portrayed. And one the great things about Sue's book that struck me is I had never seen black women portrayed like this, ever, in the '60s, and why I wanted to give them life. They own their own business, they're self-sufficient, they're educated, they're cultured, they're their own women and they know that black can be divine and beautiful, and I thought that was such a great thing to put out there in the world.
MARTIN: Speaking of the way black people are portrayed, there's so much to talk about here because the book is a story about black women and white women and the way they take care of each other. And this movie is also a story about black women and a white woman and the way you trusted this book, that you obviously care very deeply about, to these African-American women and an African-American woman director. Was that complicated? As August says, when she's asked by Lily about - did you love my mother? I don't want to give too much away. She says - when August says, you know, it's complicated. Was this complicated for you?
Ms. PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Again, I think it goes back to my gut feeling when I read the book. It just - again, it was reading black women I hadn't seen before. And I don't know if this a compliment or not. I didn't know Sue Monk was white when I had read the book. But after - you know, after I had read it and I started doing the script, she sent me this great essay that she had written called "The Slave Chair," which was probably the most beneficial thing that I had as a writer for this film. And I actually gave a copy to Jennifer and a copy to Dakota because...
MARTIN: Dakota Fanning, who plays Lily.
Ms. PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Dakota Fanning, who plays Lily. And I think Sue can explain it better, but it really talked about the complicated relationship and love between a black nanny and, you know, a white girl, or could be boy, that has been raised by that woman, and that it's your job to love this child. But there are so many things going on. Are you a part of the family? Are you not a part of the family? Does this child respect you? Do they love you? But as they get older, does that love change because of outside forces?
MARTIN: I'm fascinated. I'm happy you brought that up because one of the characters we have seen before - I mean, since "Uncle Tom's Cabin," is the black person who's redeemed by and valued because of caring for a white person. I mean, this has been a trope in American literature throughout time that, you know, black people exist to take care of white people and that their importance to the story hinges upon their taking care of white people and being the agent of redemption of white people. Sue, you obviously feel these issues so deeply and keenly. How did you avoid that cliche?
Ms. KIDD: I think that because it becomes really this journey, this quest to belonging by Lily. And I wanted her to find this through place, through a feminine community. So it wasn't, to me, about African-American women becoming the saviors of this young girl. It was about a sanctuary of women, just women, who could take her in and teach her something. But I think it is something about the bonds and solidarity and community of women coming together to transform, validate the story, hear the story, and say, you are lovable and we experience that together.
(Soundbite of music)
MARTIN: We're going to continue our conversation about "The Secret Life of Bees" after a short break. That's next on Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
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MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, the latest in our series of essays, This I Believe. But first, we're going to continue our conversation about the new film, "The Secret Life of Bees," with director Gina Prince-Bythewood, writer Sue Monk Kidd and actress Jennifer Hudson.
Jennifer, going back to my earlier question to Sue about black characters that are redeemed or valued because they take care of white people. Earlier this year, you played the character of Louise in the movie version of "Sex and the City" with actress Sarah Jessica Parker. You know, a lot of people were irritated by that role. They said, you know, Jennifer Hudson is an Oscar winner. How come she's the personal assistant? She ought to be one of the stars of this thing. Now I know you know about some of this conversation on the message boards on the blog.
Ms. HUDSON: I don't really read the blogs, but...
MARTIN: That's a good choice. But you should be reading, other things, like great literature, like "The Secret Life of Bees." But how did you navigate that whole question of, you know, the housekeeper, who's - you know?
Ms. HUDSON: As far as this film, you know, it just covers what was. And to me, that was one of the most powerful things about it. And even the fight scene of where Rosaleen is trying to go register her vote, we can avoid what happened and we still do have a ways to go. And I guess that's how we get to "Sex and the City," you know. But just to see that - I was just honored to be a part of something that was so well established.
MARTIN: Talk to me about Rosaleen, how you thought about her, how you developed her.
Ms. HUDSON: How - wow. It's a journey in developing Rosaleen. I think that was the most challenging character yet for me, not that I've had many. But I had to go back into a time where I didn't exist, and it taught me a lot about our history and where we've come from and helped me appreciate today that much more in developing a character.
MARTIN: Was that hard, though, to put yourself in a frame of mind where you really had to watch what you said, that what you said could get you killed?
Ms. HUDSON: Yeah.
MARTIN: There's a scene where you confront the racist, as you're saying, as you're on your way to vote.
Ms. HUDSON: Right.
MARTIN: And it's very hard to watch, particularly that you can't make eye contact with them.
Ms. HUDSON: Right.
MARTIN: And as a woman who clearly is used to make an eye contact with people...
Ms. HUDSON: Oh, yes, yes.
MARTIN: Was that hard?
Ms. HUDSON: It was definitely hard. It was just like - but like I said, what was hard is the fact to know these things actually took place. It was once like that. And the most important and shocking part for me was the fact it wasn't that long ago, and to be someone who has a serious habit of looking people dead in their face when I speak to them, to going to being treated like nothing, not even a human being, and not being able to give someone eye contact or have the freedom to do whatever I want to do, you know, and I had to fight for that, that just - it's still shocking to me.
This is how informative it was in developing my character. I never realized that - wow! It never occurred to me people are still walking around from that time because to us...
MARTIN: From '64, exactly.
Ms. HUDSON: But it was just 40 years ago, and why it seems so long ago is because it was a lifetime of change that took place and where we've come from as America and African-Americans.
MARTIN: Gina, what about you? You weren't grown during those times. How did you think about that time, create the environment of both hostility and poignancy and the emotional toll that it took on people? I think one of the revelations, I think, of this film, for many people, will be the emotional toll that that kind of oppression placed on people.
Ms. PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: I mean, as a writer and director, my favorite part of the process is research. And the research has fed so much for me along the - a lot of great documentaries for little girls that Spike Lee did. "Eyes On the Prize," "February 1." There was also a great, great autobiography called, "Coming of Age in Mississippi," which is a book I gave Alicia's character. I mean, Alicia Keys for her character, June, because I felt like that so fed into who June was, but...
MARTIN: And just for those who don't know, June being the cello-playing music teacher, quite elegant, not in love with this whole business of this little white girl coming to stay in her house, and...
Ms. PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Definitely.
MARTIN: And kind of interfere with her relationship with her sisters.
Ms. PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: But the best research I had was - my husband's family is from South Carolina. And so to talk to his aunts who were teenagers at the time this film takes place in 1964 - you know, the Civil Rights Act just being signed - what was so striking and what we really brought to the actors and to the film is that, you know, every time you see a film or TV show about the '60s, it's only about the struggle, like that's completely at the forefront. And what's great about the book and I hope about the film is that it shows that lives were still going on. People were falling in love. They had jobs, they had businesses, they had friends, they went to church. There was a whole life going on and the movement was there, but it was not absolutely everything.
The thing that a lot of the women I spoke to talked about was it was a time of enormous hope, like, you can suddenly see a brightness, you know, with this law being passed. It was an exciting time. You saw the change was actually happening, and that just really struck me because I fell into that trap of that the '60s, it's just about the movement, and the movement was a huge part of it, obviously, but I think it's arrogant, I think, for some to question that our lives were only determined by how white folks treated us at that time.
MARTIN: But there is a character, Sue, I wanted to talk to you about. May, who basically lives the pain of the world. And that is another one of those characters I don't think we've seen before, and I wonder where you came up with that character. One of the things I think people like about the book and also about the film, or will like about the film, is the characters live their anger but they also live their sadness, but the sadness is something that I don't think we've seen a lot of, as Gina was just saying. Where did May come from?
Ms. KIDD: Well, I don't know anybody like May. I certainly didn't base her on anyone that I knew of. But I was very fascinated by the idea that there could be a person who was so overwhelmed with the pathos of the world and took that into their heart. And what would this person be like, and what would it do to this person?
I think a lot of it was driven by the idea that compassion is so lacking. You know, we have such an abundance of cynicism and bitterness, and what it seems like we need a good dose of - of course, May had an overdose of it, which was the point. I mean, it was the point to say, perhaps we ought to get a picture of some compassion in this world, and maybe we have to see it in this extremity.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you are listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. We are talking about the new film, "The Secret Life of Bees," with novelist Sue Monk Kidd, director Gina Prince-Bythewood, and actress Jennifer Hudson.
Jennifer, the film also deals with - I don't know another way to put it - the class divisions in the black community, and you get the sense when Rosaleen first encounters the Boatwright sisters that she's just not sure what to make of these shallow, plain, pink house living in, you know, women. And I wonder, as a person - you know, you've had a journey in your own life from, you know, just being regular like the rest of us to being a star, a major international star. Have you experienced that, just a sense of people not really understanding you?
Ms. HUDSON: Well, yeah. I think people have a hard time identifying with it, getting used to it, you know. But that's OK because it just helps you stand out so much more.
MARTIN: But what about that whole question of that people in the African-American community not always understanding each other because some have more, some have less, being used to being thought of as one group from the outside, but acutally there is lots of difference within the group?
Ms. HUDSON: That's a tough question. I don't really know how to answer that. But I think it's just a matter of not being open or being open, and limiting yourselves. It's like - it's like I said, I'm stuck on this one. Gina, help me out here!
Ms. PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: I would like to say that one of my favorite parts of the film is Roseleen's journey. I just thought it was fascinating that as Sue said, it's not just Lily that has a transformation but Rosaleen. And one of the ways that I wanted to illustrate that, which is subtle and not everyone is going to get it, but in the beginning, Rosaleen's character, she's a nanny, she has a sixth grade education and her hair is straight. She presses it. But when she gets to the Boatwright house, and these amazing women who are educated and cultured and have money, their hair is all natural.
And part of it is growing up with this Black Madonna, and again, believing that who you are, who God made you, you know, you're fine that way. And as she stays at the Boatwright house, you see her hair changing. By the end her hair is natural, just like Alicia, June, who has an Afro, and August, and May, who's got these great braids. So that was one subtle way of showing it.
But she is someone that learns that she can aspire to more by being around these women. She had never seen black women like that, and here now she gets to live with these women and grow and change, as well.
Ms. KIDD: And I think that was also a part of, like, her struggle and what she was fighting for. It's like she knew that in the state that she was originally in, you know, there's more than just this. And when she made it to the Boatwright sisters, it's like, wow, this is what I wanted to be. I knew it was something on the other side, you know, and a part of nowhere. She's speaking like Rosaleen speaks and all of the sudden she corrects herself because she's like, oh, wow! Yeah. OK. Let me catch up, you know. It turns out to be people she admires, and you know, would like to be like.
MARTIN: Gina, what are you hoping people will draw from this film?
Ms. PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: You know, what I love about the film, about the book is that, you know, it shows, I think Sue said it best, this group of people who are completely different, from completely different worlds coming together, overcoming barriers and working together. There's a great theme of optimism is courageous, and I think that is so important for this time. And it just shows, again, how far we've come in 40 years as a nation to this point.
You know, when were shooting this in January is when Obama won South Carolina so big, and that just infused the cast and crew with such - it was just such an amazing feeling because again, we're shooting a film that takes place in 1964. And at that time, you know, people would have said, well, black folks will have a chance to vote some day but not in my lifetime. And now today, I can say even a year and a half ago, I was saying, my son is going to be the first black president. It's going to happen, just, you know, not in my lifetime, and now here we are today.
So it was such a great time, but really just hope that people come out feeling good because I think it's such a heartfelt film and story, and it really is about people coming together and loving each other and making universal need for belonging and family.
MARTIN: Sue, you handed your baby to these women to raise. How do you feel about it?
Ms. KIDD: Well, I saw the movie for the first time - I guess it was a couple of weeks ago. And I have to say I'm extremely pleased with it. They did a beautiful job from the script to the direction to the performances. So I'm a happy novelist about that. It's a beautiful film, actually.
MARTIN: What do you want people to draw from it?
Ms. KIDD: I hope they draw from it the same thing that they drew from the book. You know, I've heard from so many readers, and they all tell me different things that this book meant to them.
MARTIN: Do you hear different things from black people and white people?
Ms. KIDD: Not really. I hear about the importance of family and love and belonging, this universal kind of quest. And I hear about the Black Madonna, which is this iconic figure in the novel that as Gina said gives the sense of feminine dark divinity, of helping women to understand that they, too, have that kind of sacred divine image in them. I hear a lot about that from white women and black women.
I think I would like them to see this as a sense of family connections, but also to see that historic backdrop of the civil rights movement, to understand that this is a story from our past, but we have to have that story in order to make a story in the future. We need to understand that because there is still change that has to happen in the human heart.
MARTIN: Sue Monk Kidd is the author of "The Secret Life of Bees." It's now been turned into a major motion picture. Jennifer Hudson is an Oscar Award-winning actress. She co-stars in the film. Gina Prince-Bythewood wrote the screenplay and is the director of the film, and they were all here with me in our Washington studio. The film comes to theaters this week. I thank you all so much for speaking with us.
Ms. KIDD: Thank you.
Ms. PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Thank you very much.
Ms. HUDSON: Thank you.
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