Akeelah and the Bee
Summer 2006 Summer Films series
Sunday, June 4, 2006 at 8:00pm
Rated PG ·
Following in the fine tradition of inspiring inner-city underdog tales like Stand and Deliver and Take the Lead, Doug Atchison’s Akeelah and the Bee is a story of overcoming odds that never descends into empty formula. The narrative centers around the character of Akeelah (Keke Palmer, in a star-making performance), a charming yet insecure 11 year old girl from Los Angeles’ gang-ridden South Central district. Upon flipping channels after school one day, she lands on ESPN’s coverage of the National Spelling Bee. Having recently become aware of her innate talent in this area, Akeelah cannot help but fantasize about the prospect of being a star of the bee circuit. The tragic problem—intelligence of this kind is not valued in her community, where skills of athleticism and rapping are coveted far more than school smarts. Though Akeelah attempts to hide her academic acuity behind a rebellious attitude, she cannot resist the temptation to enter her school’s spelling bee, at which her stellar performance attracts the attention of her idealistic principal, who pairs her with a mentor, a former professor named Joshua Larabee (the always riveting Laurence Fishburne, who re-embodies the wise iconoclast character he played so well in the chess movie Searching for Bobby Fischer). Meanwhile, Akeelah’s strong, practical mother, (played by Angela Bassett, who worked with Fishburne on the Tina Turner biopic What’s Love Got To Do With It?) while always supportive of her talented daughter, does not necessarily see the point of spending such time and energy on what will likely amount to a fleeting hobby.
Perhaps taking its cue from the surprising popularity of Jeffrey Blitz’s quirky documentary Spellbound (2002), which explored spelling prodigies from diverse classes, races, and geographic locations, this drama makes what could be a narrow niche into a universal tale of triumph over adversity.