| 17 Feb 2015 | 04:42

    That's the question director Gina Prince-Bythewood poses in her adaptation of The Secret Life of Bees, which is based on a novel that rips off the female-empowerment angle of The Color Purple. Prince-Bythewood, who directed the 1999 romance Love and Basketball, may have intended a showcase for strong black screen actresses, but she neglected to hire more than one. Sophie Okenedo (of Hotel Rwanda) joins Queen Latifah, Alicia Keys and Jennifer Hudson as the four black women who surround and nurture 14-year-old Lily Owens (the great Dakota Fanning). Once Okenedo exits the story, Prince-Bythewood sticks us with singers reading cue cards. Problem is, their prompters are full of cornball sentiments about love, self-respect and beekeeping to make honey, the family business. Curiously, these black women living in a big pink house are named Boatwright like the white woman who helped the black sharecropper family in Sounder. Reversing that patronage, Prince-Bythewood's girl group helps Lily resolve her esteem issues (in the opening scene, at age four, she accidentally kills her mother and then endures his father's punishment until she runs away to Big Pink). The story is centered around LBJ signing the Civil Rights Act into law, yet the honey-making trio are incurious about national change; they've developed their own quasi-religion-reciting pledges to a black Madonna statue that sits in the living room and touching the figure's wooden heart. Secret Life of Bees deserves ridicule for its saccharine metaphor of arcane ethnic and gender customs that Prince-Bythewood and company never substantiate. It's been 23 years since Spielberg's film of The Color Purple and 10 years since Jonathan Demme's visionary film of Toni Morrison's Beloved-both landmarks of feminist cinema, featuring some of Hollywood's most memorable black female performances. Demme and Spielberg beautifully expanded the range of black female experience. Prince-Bythewood's direction doesn't even connect Fanning's sensitive, dawning womanhood or her tragic insecurity to the others. After Thandi Newton's sensational showcase in RocknRolla and her outrageous display of comic expertise in W., it is impossible to excuse Hollywood's persistent neglect of great black actresses. Bees compounds the problem: Latifah doesn't lack confidence, but she has zero authority on screen; her routine submission to the Big Mamma cliché is scandalous. Jennifer Hudson continues looking lost, a graduate from the Latifah School of Lucky Ducks. And Keys' spectacular debut in The Nanny Diaries is reduced to angry glares. When Lily praises these women as "moons," it inadvertently underscores that Prince-Bythewood limits them as satellites to Hollywood's typical white ideal. -- The Secret Life of Bees Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, Running Time: 110 min. --