Film Reviews: Wednesday, April 26, 2006
Akeelah and the Bee
Starring Keke Palmer and Laurence Fishburne. Written and directed by Doug Atchison. Rated PG.
Dropping Letters

The would-be inspirational tale of Akeelah and the Bee is less than letter perfect.


Ever since ESPN started televising the National Spelling Bee in 1994, viewers have caught onto the uniquely mesmerizing, nerve-frying spectacle that the event offers up. It’s hard to look away from pre-adolescent kids squirming under the spotlight, relying only on their memories as they struggle to spell out obscure words. (That’s probably the next reality show: C-list celebrities trying to beat each other in a spelling contest.) The inherent drama of the bee was deepened in Jeffrey Blitz’ 2003 documentary Spellbound, which profiled several contestants from widely divergent backgrounds and wove those memorably quirky kids into a funny, rousing movie brimming with unvarnished charm.

That quality is sorely lacking in the glossy indie film Akeelah and the Bee, about an 11-year-old who makes a run at the big prize. The title character is a cute black girl with glasses from South Central L.A. If you can already catch the whiff of calculation about this project, there’s more where that came from.

Keke Palmer plays Akeelah Anderson, who shortly after winning the bee at her run-down public school receives tutoring help from Joshua Larrabee (Laurence Fishburne), a gruff, take-no-nonsense UCLA professor on sabbatical who knows first-hand what it takes to reach the national level. Ah, but this flinty man is nursing some private grief, and helping Akeelah in her quest turns out to be the saving of him. The same goes for her mother (Angela Bassett), who thinks spelling bees are a waste of time, and her brother (Lee Thompson Young), who’s involved with gangs.

This last subplot is actually somewhat credible, but how does Akeelah turn everybody’s life around when she’s written as such a softie? Every little setback sends her into a tailspin, crying and saying she wants to give up. How does that girl square with the one who never fails when she’s onstage in front of the microphone? Where does Akeelah’s drive come from? Writer-director Doug Atchison has no answers, and Palmer’s amateurish, cutesy performance doesn’t illuminate it, either.

The filmmaker is so bent on making an inspirational movie that he drowns it in tapioca pudding. All the characters have happy endings, and nobody turns out as a bad guy, not even the humorless Chinese-American kid (Sean Michael) who emerges as Akeelah’s nemesis at the bee. (The ethnicity is wrong, by the way — the bee has been dominated in recent years by kids of Indian and Pakistani descent.) Unbelievably, Atchison completely fails to address the subject of how a certain subset of African-Americans believes that black children are “acting white” by doing well in academic subjects. How could he leave this untouched when it could have complicated the story in so many enlightening ways? Is it because the director’s a white guy? I don’t know — it’s too easy to imagine a mediocre black filmmaker neutering this material in the same way. Still, you wonder.

The best to be said about this film is that it’s better than last year’s similarly themed, staggeringly misconceived Bee Season. I suppose if Akeelah and the Bee encourages one African-American kid to work harder in school, that’s a good thing. Nevertheless, there are too many other better films on this subject to make this all-too-easy Bee worth seeking out.

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