If you’ve seen the outstanding 2002 documentary Spellbound
, you will perhaps recall Ashley White, the young spelling-bee contestant from the D.C. projects who cobbled together her training from word games and help from encouraging teachers, while the more privileged spellers enjoyed clubs, formal coaching, and other institutional advantages. In the film, Ashley says her life is like a movie: She struggles and she overcomes. Akeelah and the Bee
is that movie, dramatized. It is, in most ways, a conventional Hollywood sports film, an against-the-odds story about an intellectual athlete, her coach, and her challenges with a big third-act showdown and an uplifting message. It is significant that the film’s distributor, Lionsgate, is strategically partnered with Starbucks Entertainment, which is using its coffee empire to promote the movie. Adult audiences have cause for cynicism, and the movie is so conventional that it might fade rapidly from a grown-up’s memory. Just the same, Akeelah
is an excellent choice for tweenage audiences: Thoughtful, engaging, and with cross-gender appeal, it takes the problems of urban family life and education seriously and makes no villains of its characters. Even the local gangbanger (Eddie Steeples) – the one who’s drawing Akeelah’s brother into a life of crime – supports Akeelah’s quest to win the National Spelling Bee and fondly recalls how a teacher encouraged his grade-school forays into poetry composition. One of the film’s producers, Nancy Hult, is a former math teacher at an inner-city school, and the movie is chock-a-block with instructional design: Akeelah is a kinesthetic learner who spells by tapping her leg rhythmically and skipping rope, and she’s bored by the drill-and-kill routine of overcrowded Crenshaw Middle School, where the teachers want to help their gifted students but don’t even have money for books. So Akeelah gets a tutor, Dr. Joshua Larabee (Fishburne), who gives her project-based tasks (she learns to spell words from the speeches of W.E.B. Dubois and Martin Luther King). Larabee also has a tortured backstory that’s handled inelegantly by writer-director Atchison, who has one low-budget feature (1999’s The Pornographer
) and a short under his belt. Atchison’s dramatic hand is simply too heavy at times. However, his ensemble is wonderful, and his star, Palmer, is a fantastically assured young actress who conveys Akeelah’s maelstrom of 11-year-old feelings with no apparent effort. Akeelah is gifted but not cocky, and it’s hard for her to stick out and be different from her peers. She is a heroine who clearly resonates with young kids; the audience at my screening adored her and burst into applause when she spelled “pastiche.” These viewers are likely to forgive the film its shortcomings. A twist in the third act seems like a narrative cop-out, but it’s really a hallmark of how Atchison’s story actively tries to deconstruct the “competition” paradigm of learning and suggest a community-based, cooperative model of group success. Akeelah
has lofty goals, and though it doesn’t always achieve them, it is a rewarding tale for public educators, parents, and kids with big dreams.