About five minutes into an exclusive interview with director Gina Prince-Bythewood on the balcony of the Four Seasons Hotel, a bee began buzzing around her head. For Prince-Bythewood, the director of “The Secret Life of Bees,” it was yet another sign that she was in the right place at the right time.
“Wow, how odd is that?” she said. “There’s something to that. There were so many signs for me to do this movie even when I didn’t want to.”
For Prince-Bythewood timing has been everything. The film, which hits theaters on Oct. 17 with four black protagonists, could prove to be a sign of the times. It stars Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson, Alicia Keys and Sophie Okonedo and has a black director and a black executive producer in Jada Pinkett Smith.
Perhaps this cast — which includes an Oscar winner, two Oscar nominees and an 11-time Grammy winner and the very capable Dakota Fanning — will prove that the current conventional Hollywood wisdom is outdated and that an ensemble film with black women leading the way on- and off-camera can make money.
But, is this the start of a trend?
“Yeah, I would hope so,” said Latifah. “I would hope that it would at least lend to that power base. We’ve got Gina and Jada backing it up and helming it at the same time and us in front of the camera.
“I tell you, I like watching movies with black women in them. We just look good on that damn screen. It doesn’t even matter what movie it is. You light it right and we just glow.”
All five of the “Bees” stars are doing just that — particularly Okonedo who has gotten a lot of pre-Oscar buzz for her performance. Based on Sue Monk Kidd’s best-selling period novel, “Bees” chronicles the journey of a troubled young white girl named Lily (Fanning) from the South who runs away from her abusive father (Paul Bettany) with her black caretaker, Rosaleen (Hudson). Making their way through the South in the early ’60s was no easy task, but Lily and Rosaleen find a safe haven at the home of the Boatwright sisters — August (Latifah), June (Keys) and May (Okonedo).
The Essence of Hollywood Earlier this year Essence magazine launched its inaugural Black Women in Hollywood luncheon. It was a virtual who’s who of black women in entertainment who all came out to pay tribute to Oscar nominee Ruby Dee, filmmaker Suzanne dePasse and actresses Jada Pinkett Smith and Jurnee Smollett.
Held at the Beverly Hills Hotel, the 2008 event was perhaps the largest gathering of powerful black women in entertainment in Hollywood history.
“I’m hoping that everything is changing,” said Hudson. “Clearly it’s a time of change now with (Barack) Obama and there’s no better opportunity than now. You have so many powerful women all over so why not step up to the plate and make that change?”
Cicely Tyson, a 1972 Oscar nominee for “Sounder,” thinks that’s easier said than done. Tyson believes that despite these gains black women are still afterthoughts in Hollywood.
“I don’t care what anybody says,” Tyson said emphatically. “We are basically at the last wrung of the ladder struggling and we’ll always be there struggling. The point is you’ve got to hold on and not let it go. No matter how much they trample on your fingers hold on and you will eventually get to the next wrung.”
Conversely, Kathleen McGhee-Anderson, executive producer of ABC Family’s “Lincoln Heights” series, thinks her show and “Bees” will help usher in a new power base for black women in Hollywood.
“I think there is some hope in the situation,” she said. “Not necessarily because Hollywood is seeking to be more diverse but because I think the economic demands of the marketplace are going to require that there are some new stories be told and some new ways of going about telling them.”
How do you sell a black film?McGhee-Anderson’s statement brings up an interesting point about “Bees.” Since most believe that the conventional Hollywood wisdom regarding black women in still in place, how will Fox Searchlight market this film? Whose story is it? Is it a movie about four empowering southern black women overcoming obstacles in the post-Jim Crow ‘60s? A coming-of-age flick about a young white girl? Or just another chick flick?
While requests to interview studio marketing executives regarding their promotional plans for “Bees” were declined, one Hollywood insider thinks that most studios never get it right when it comes to selling films involving people of color.
“They just don’t get it,” she said. “All you really have to do is market it the same way you would any other film. When they look at it as a black film specifically, that’s when they screw it up. It’s just a movie.”
Regardless of what happens with “Bees,” Prince-Bythewood is determined to live up to her own personal mantra regardless of whether a film is set in 1888 or 2008. She’s committed to providing opportunities for black women.
“I’m always thinking about that,” Bythewood said. “The fact that I made this choice shows where my head and heart are.”
Okonedo, a 2005 Oscar nominee for her supporting role in “Hotel Rwanda” believes that more films like “Bees” need to be made for other reasons. “Throughout history storytelling provides the keys to people understanding life the way it was and life the way it is now,” she said. “That’s a very, very healing process I many, many cultures. Things are never black and white and that’s the beauty of this movie.”
Like Prince-Bythewood, Latifah is also committed to dispelling the myths. The one-woman entertainment powerhouse who earned an Oscar nod for “Chicago,” followed up that success as star and executive producer of “Bringing Down the House.”
“I think we have been able to open movies. As we continue to have success — like I think we will have in this movie — we’ll knock that door down,” Latifah said. “It’s always going to be something you have to fight against because at the end of the day no matter how creative we are it’s about dollars and cents. We have to constantly be creative in the ways that we make movies and the costs that we make them at so we can give ourselves a better shot of recouping that money. If we can do that studios will keep putting that money back into us.”
Miki Turner can be reached at email@example.com.