“The Secret Life of Bees” and More
Dreams still abound for Academy Award winner Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls, Sex and the City) who costars in director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Secret Life of Bees. Taken from the best selling novel of the same name, Hudson inhabits the role of Rosaleen, a determined domestic and field worker, caught between the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement and the maternal love she feels toward a 14-year-old white southern girl, Lily (Dakota Fanning).
Hudson says her character and Fanning’s were bound together by shared needs. “They both have a struggle: Rosaleen wants to be acknowledged as a human being while Lily is looking for a mother. So where one is weak, the other is strong.”
Given that neither actress could reference the 1960’s from personal knowledge, Prince-Bythewood tried to create an environment steeped in the period. “Only 60s music was allowed on the set - a lot of Motown,” says Prince-Bythewood, who would not even allow modern music in her own car on the way to work.
Adding another layer of reality, Prince-Bythewood put Hudson and Fanning through a staged re-enactment at a local drug store; an effort to recreate aspects of the Civil Rights era to help set the mood, however, she didn’t inform them of what was going on.
Vividly describing that experience in detail, Hudson recalls, “Oh my God, it was quite a scene! It was during the first week of production when we arrived in North Carolina. I had to do so much research and look at all types of footage and DVDs; I even went on You Tube to find whatever I could. I had the chronicles of the Civil Rights Movement and went back to the days of slavery to get deep into the history, so, the only image I had of the South was of people being lynched, people being hosed and beaten, violently. Of course, no one wants to go to the South with those images in mind and once I got there, I didn’t want to go anywhere. Even in the room at the Boatwright house (where Rosaleen and Lily slept) made me uncomfortable —it felt as though I was on a plantation in the master’s house— that’s how deep I had gotten into my character because during that time, that’s how bad things were.”
She continued, “The trip to the drug store was our first outing and I was told by Gina to meet Dakota at a specific location. I asked her what was going on and she told me I would see when I got there. So we get there and Gina gave us some money to go in and purchase specific items. Before going into the store, Gina looked at me and said, ‘Whatever you do Jennifer, don’t hit anybody.’ So I said, ‘Golly, why would I hit anyone?’ Well, we go in the store and Dakota is grabbing items while I went to get a birthday card, which was on the list of things to buy. I asked the store clerk where the birthday cards were and he pointed, ‘Over there,’ and just tossed me off. All of the cards in the store were of white images, by the way. Anyway, I noticed that ‘Queen Dakota’ had like five clerks helping her and she didn’t even have to make a move and I’m like (getting animated) ‘Why is she getting all this service and I’m being treated like this?’ I said, OK, fine. I’ll find them myself. Then I went over to look for batteries and the clerk in that area said to me, ‘I could have sworn you’ve already been over here looking for batteries. As a matter of fact, I think I saw you put some batteries in your pocket ... you did. Empty your pockets!’ I couldn’t believe it! Was he serious?!! Dakota said to him, ‘You didn’t ask me to empty my pockets.’ He said to her, ‘Everybody emptied their pockets,’ and I said to him, ‘Well you empty YOUR pockets!’”
Hoping to lessen the blow of the insults, Hudson and Fanning thought they’d change the pace of things and decided to get some ice cream. She reflects, “We went into the parlor and the clerk said, ‘She can’t be in here.’ I looked around and said, ‘Who is she talking to because she can’t be talking to me?’ I sat down at the counter and there’s this white man sitting next to me eating. He looks at me, turned to the clerk and said, ‘Can you get this nigger out of here? I’m trying to eat my food!’ I rose up and said, ‘wait a minute’ and the next thing I could hear in my head was Gina saying, ‘Whatever you do, don’t hit anybody.’ Of course, at this point, I’m ready to swing. Then we were told it was staged. Even so, that was hard and it was a shock, especially when that person turns around and wants to take a picture with me. Acting or not, who wants to stand there and take that? It was hard to take in.”
According to Hudson, (Gina) Prince-Bythewood was clear about her vision for the Rosaleen character (in the film) that is different from the character in the book written by acclaimed best-selling author, Sue Monk Kidd.
“Gina advised me that she didn’t want to have the stereotypical ‘Aunt Jemina’ caricature, ‘Mammie-ish’ prototype of what the people were like during that era; she wanted something different which was totally fine for me because I just wanted to deliver it in the best way that I possibly could.”
Acknowledging the impact of those exercises - and the historical research she did - on her performance, Hudson says she developed an overwhelming sense of gratitude at being young today. “I was sitting watching a little white girl and a little black boy reading a book together recently and I thought ‘Wow that would have been illegal 50 years ago.’” She adds, “You have to know where you’ve come from to know where you’re going and you need to know what mistakes you made, so you don’t make them again. This was a part of our history.”
Intricate to the arc of this story is Rosaleen’s determination to register to vote. Comparing the parallel of her character being physically attacked on the way to vote and the fact that she sang the national anthem at this year’s Democratic National Convention where Barack Obama became the first black person to head a major ticket as candidate for the presidency of the United States seemed pre- ordained.
“First of all, performing for such an event was unbelievable. Also, to be able to witness it and to be a part of it and sing —I had to remove myself emotionally— because of what I went through to develop Rosaleen and what I learned from that experience. Although it was a character in a movie, as Jennifer, I was still standing there being beat up for exercising my right to vote and to turn around months later and be singing for a possible African American president was unbelievable. The Bees film experience made [singing at the DNC] have more value to me —and, to see this day come— because after all, it wasn’t that long ago when blacks did not have the right to vote.”
Being a native Chicagoan (Obama’s and Oprah’s city of residence) punctuated the historical moment for Hudson as well. Asked what is it about the Windy City she effused, “I guess it’s in the water (laughter). I don’t know what it is but I’m just glad to be a part of it.”
Speaking of Oprah, the two formed a special bond following Hudson’s Dreamgirls trek and their friendship continues. “I went to see her not too long ago and people don’t do that too often. I think I’ve been on the show about three times now and her people always tell me that I can come over whenever I’d like. Nobody takes people up on those offers unless they want something and I don’t need anything; I just want to go over and say hello. So I just called one day and asked to come over to see her. She thought something was wrong and asked me if I was okay? She said, ‘Nobody just comes in and says, ‘hello.’ I told her I just wanted to stop in and she how she was doing. Yes, she’s definitely a huge support and someone I clearly admire.”
Circumspectly, I asked Hudson what it is like to be a single woman, an Oscar winner and continue to date with all that she’s achieved and she graciously obliged, “I don’t know ...regardless of whom I meet and how I meet them or when I meet them, I just try to be Jennifer. That’s the only person I know how to be. First, someone may see ‘Jennifer Hudson’ but then I want people to know the person and that’s what I try to give no matter where I am, everyday and all day; to me, it kind of separates ‘me’ from ‘the image of me’ and this is who you’re getting to know and getting to see; that’s all I’m going to give you and it helps to balance things out.”
Days after our interview, Jennifer announced her engagement to boyfriend David Ortunga (the two have been dating for nearly one year), who is best known as “Punk” on the VH1 reality show “I Love New York 2.”
Some two weeks later, she released her highly anticipated debut album with Clive Davis for Arista records.
On October 17, The Secret Life of Bees opens in theaters from Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Sweet dreams indeed, Jennifer.