Akeelah and the Bee – 2006
Written & Directed by Doug Atichison
Starring Keke Palmer, Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Curtis Armstrong, J.R. Villareal, Sean Michael Afable, Erica Hubbard, Lee Thompson Young, Julito McCullum
Akeelah: Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. (quoting Marianne Williamson)
Dr. Larabee: Does that mean anything to you?
Akeelah: I don’t know.
Dr. Larabee: It’s written in plain English. What does it mean?
Akeelah: That I’m not supposed to be afraid?
Dr. Larabee: Afraid of what?
Akeelah: Afraid of… me?
Akeelah and the Bee is an accomplishment beyond measure,. It is a fearless endeavor into a life worth living. It is a smart film about trying to be brilliant. That brilliance comes from within a person’s desire, and from working beyond all of the fears one has about success, as well as failure. Of all the roadblocks that one can see in the film, none are so big as those our protagonist has placed within herself.
Developed over many years by Atchison after seeing the Scripps Spelling Bee, he had a tough time getting a green light until the release of Spellbound. Having the makings of an ABC afterschool special, it rises above this by its honesty, natural flow and its purpose. The strength of this film is the way the script, pace and acting work together. Each of the elements are superb. The fear of success the weight of failure are intricately woven with each scene. It carries a load but never buckles from the load.
A big reason for this is the performance of Akeelah Anderson by Keke Palmer. She is as beautiful as she is vulnerable. She walks the line with every step of the way and her face shares every emotion on that journey. We see the world getting larger before her eyes, and we are drawn into it with her. She is a relatively successful actress now, but she has the talent to be as good as the woman who plays her mother in the film.
“You know Akeelah, you ain’t short on people who want to help you.”
Angela Bassett has been one of the best actresses on film since her breakthrough Boyz n The Hood. Here she treads familiar ground, but that’s the point. When you need a clean up hitter, you get someone who can knock it out of the park. She is the epitome of someone carrying a burden with eyes nearly closed to the world. Seeing how her eyes are opened is anything but a routine scene. One can see the frustration turn to thought, and the thought processed into acceptance and a pride that any parent can feel. There are no short cuts to any of these points. The viewer goes on a real journey.
Laurence Fishburne, as Akeelah’s coach, Dr. Larabee, was opposite Bassett in Boyz…,and he is a counter of sorts here. At least at first. His coach is like many of his best characters: someone who gives and demands respect. The love in his character is intricately weaved behind the lessons that he shares with Akeelah. It’s a beautiful, multi-layered portrayal and one of the best of his career.
The ending of the movie, especially the spelling of the last word is so well expressed, it brings tears of joy. It’s a reward for taking every step with Akeelah, and realizing that it is love, not learning by rote, that pushes one to true intelligence. That is the true “manifest glory of God” we all are gifted with.
My daughters, upon seeing the credits begin to roll, immediately sought out dictionaries and started writing down words. Then they started sharing them with us. There is joy in their hearts with a love for learning. My wife and I are grateful to be able to give some of that back.
(***** out *****)
CPE: So, did you like this movie?
Em: I give it a 4 and 1/2 out of 5. Some of the scenes had bad words in it, like b-i-t-c-h. And Dad, I am trying to study.
CPE: Do you think that those words might have been put in there to prove a point?
CPE: No? What do you mean?
Em: Dad, I am trying to study my words!
CPE: So who is your favorite character?
Em: I’m studying!
CPE: Come on! Tell me!
Em: My favorite character was Akeelah. She is sweet and she never gave up on her dreams. She almost did, though.
Em took this moment to go off and continue writing words down out of the dictionary, something that El was doing too.
CPE: El, did you like this movie?
El: Yeah, I liked that Dr. Larabee started teaching her again.
CPE: Was the Dr. your favorite character?
El: Mmm: Akeelah and the Doctor.
CPE: Did you like how the Mother started helping her daughter?
El: Mmmhm. Did I tell you I like the Mother too?
CPE: No, but do you?
CPE: Was this a sad movie?
El: Kind of.
CPE: What made the movie happier?
El: She got happy.
Mrs. CPE: How did she get happier?
El: By hugging the doctor.
Mrs. CPE: Do we get happier by hugging our doctor?
El: Only a spelling doctor.
At this point, El went on about her business, writing down words out of the dictionary, too. They are like herding cats when they are spelling, too.