Akeelah and the Bee

Director: Doug Atchison

Back in 2000, Doug Atchison’s screenplay for Akeelah and the Bee received the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) Nicholl Fellowship in an international competition of 4,250 entries. Six years later, this small film about an eleven-year-old girl who challenges stereotypes and inspires her southern Los Angeles Crenshaw neighborhood to compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee on ESPN became the first film ever produced by Starbucks Coffee. Shot in just 31 days on a budget of 6 million dollars, this sleeper gem was unfortunately released after the higher profile, big-screen adaptation of Myla Goldberg’s novel Bee Season. While the much less kid-friendly Bee Season was better left on the page, Akeelah and the Bee is vastly superior. Newcomer Keke Palmer's title character makes a wonderful contemporary heroine for young women and the movie is such a vibrant celebration of diversity in that our three main young characters come from vastly different ethnic backgrounds-- while Akeelah is African-American, the two friends she meets along the way are Latino and Asian respectively, thereby challenging stereotypes that it’s a traditionally “white” event. In addition, Atchison’s pitch-perfect screenplay has much to say about the pressures faced by the young competitors in regards to family, nerves, self-esteem challenges and frankly-- in the end-- the luck of getting certain words to spell that can make or break their chances. Admirably, the film also illustrates the importance of learning from a wide variety from tutors such as friends, relatives, teachers and neighbors. Tackling a similar role to the one he played in Searching for Bobby Fischer, Laurence Fishburne stars as Dr. Joshua Larabee, a former UCLA English department chair currently on sabbatical after a personal tragedy. While Larabee (inspired by a teacher of writer/director Atchison) provides the traditional rigorous scholastic structure for Akeelah as a proper tutor, she also finds inspiration in her own neighborhood and becomes a symbol of hope for a community that as she notes earlier in the film, doesn’t even have enough money to put doors on the bathroom stalls in her school. Angela Bassett (reuniting with her What’s Love Gotta Do With It costar Fishburne in a role that couldn’t be further from Tina Turner) is fine as Akeelah’s hardworking mother who is skeptical about her daughter’s pursuit but eventually begins to realize how important it is to Akeelah. Although some may argue that the ending is a bit contrived or far too convenient, it succeeds because (just as the film had been up until that point) it has much to say about the plusses and minuses of a win/lose environment in a competition where children spell words that large portions of viewers (including myself) have probably never heard, which is an admirable feat in itself. Overall, Akeelah and the Bee is a wonderful, quality family film that deserves more attention now that it’s been released on DVD.

From Akeelah and the Bee

“All My Girlz” by Keke Palmer
Keke Palmer - Akeelah and the Bee (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) - All My Girlz

“Respect” by Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin - Akeelah and the Bee (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) - Respect

“ABC” by Jackson 5
Jackson 5 - Akeelah and the Bee (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) - ABC

“Respect Yourself” by The Staple Singers
The Staple Singers - Akeelah and the Bee (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) - Respect Yourself

“Rubberband Man” by The Spinners
The Spinners - Akeelah and the Bee (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) - Rubberband Man