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Akeelah and the Bee /

Rated: PG

Starring: Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Keke Palmer, Curtis Armstrong, J.R. Villarreal

Directed by: Doug Atchison

Produced by: Todd Wagner, Mark Cuban, Marc Butan

Written by: Doug Atchison

Distributor: Lions Gate Films


Keke Palmer in Lionsgate Films' Akeelah and the Bee

Laurence Fishburne in Lionsgate Films' Akeelah and the Bee

Keke Palmer in Lionsgate Films' Akeelah and the Bee

     The 2002 documentary Spellbound and last year’s Bee Season both used the pressures and triumphs of children’s spelling bees to comment on the human condition, but neither was as focused or as multi-dimensional as Akeelah and the Bee, an instant family-film classic. It stars the astonishing Keke Palmer as Akeelah Anderson, a very smart eleven-year-old girl whose success is limited to that which her South Central Los Angeles neighborhood will permit. After suffering the death of her father at an early age, Akeelah uses spelling as an outlet for her grief towards both her loss and the problems confronting her family. When her principal (Curtis Armstrong) discovers of this talent, he allows Akeelah to participate in the school-wide spelling-bee and, in exchange, erases all of unexcused absences she has on her record for cutting class. Despite the ridicule of her less intelligent peers, Akeelah wins the bee, marking the first step in her path to the National Championship. Along for the ride is her coach Dr. Larabee (Laurence Fishburne), an ex-UCLA Professor who is dealing with his own hidden loss. He sees endless potential in both Akeelah’s spelling abilities and her mind.


     Akeelah and the Bee not only functions as an old-fashioned tearjerker, but also as a commentary on the current education system in the United States. If there is a greater purpose for the No Child Left Behind Act than for students like Akeelah, I don’t know what it is. She is only eleven, but doesn’t often show up to class because she is bored by the lack of academic challenges that her school’s curriculum presents. As a result of her absences, Akeelah is unable to move ahead with her education, and is condemned to having to go to summer-school to be able to pass her grade. Fortunately, her principal allows her to waive the credits by studying with Dr. Larabee, who teaches her not only how to spell words, but how to use words. He does this through the writings of Martin Luther King and W.E.B. DuBois; as Dr. Larabee has Akeelah read their words allowed, she comes to the conclusion that all big words are derived from smaller ones, which are commonplace in communication. Using these smaller words, she can spell anything. However, Dr. Larabee’s help does not replace Akeelah’s desire to socialize with other smart kids of her age. In order to do this, she has to take matters into her own hands and rides the bus by herself to Woodland Hills, where her bee-competitor and friend Javier participates in a spelling-club.


     Akeelah and the Bee’s many layers will not do anything to confuse younger viewers, however; it is an ideal family film in that it can be viewed both in a straightforward manner and on a deeper level. It is equally as touching as it is observatory. Especially poignant are the scenes involving Akeelah’s mother, Tanya (Angela Basset), who has been, like her daughter, traumatized by the loss of her husband. Tanya would like to see Akeelah succeed, but she feels it best that she does so within the confines of school. Because she must work overtime in her job as a nurse, Tanya is blinded to realizing just how gifted Akeelah is. Tanya tries to prohibit her daughter from spelling until she completes summer school, but Akeelah is so dedicated to the competition that she forges her mother’s signature on the bee’s consent form. Tanya’s discovery that Akeelah has done this provides for one of the tenderest and most revelatory moments in the film; Bassett and Palmer are able to play off one another in the scene in a way that defies cinema. The mother-daughter struggle found in Akeelah and the Bee tells the audience more about either character than perhaps any of the film’s other themes. Not to mention, Akeelah’s familial dynamic is layered upon when truths are revealed about the family that Dr. Larabee (an obvious father-figure for Akeelah) once had.


     One doesn’t have to be the next Einstein to guess that Akeelah makes it to the National Spelling Bee, but her road getting there is nowhere near as predictable as one might expect. (The outcome of the bee is not highly obvious, either.) Each of the in-competition scenes is made with a superior level of intellect and emotion than those of other films of this kind. The outside-material is equally as wonderful, both entertaining and poignant. Through and through, Akeelah and the Bee is a great film, most definitely one of the best of the year.


-Danny, Bucket Reviews (5.4.2006)


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