Director: Doug Atchison
Stars: Keke Palmer, Angela Bassett, Laurence Fishburne, J. R. Villarreal, Sean Michael Afable, Curtis Armstrong
Akeelah (Palmer) isn’t the best student, but the 11 year old has an unusual talent for spelling. When her principal (Armstrong) notices this he encourages her to enter the spelling bee, which will help the school get more funding. Initially she’s skeptical because her peers bully her, and her mother (Bassett) isn’t that eager for her to spend all this time on a competition when her other schoolwork is being neglected. However, with the help of Dr. Larabee (Fishburne), an English professor on sabbatical, and her new friend Javier (Villarreal), Akeelah enters the competition and things unfold from there.
Akeelah and the Bee is an AMAZING film. It’s the kind of film I want to go out into the street and tell random people to go home and watch it. The premise doesn’t even sound that special, but there’s just something about the film that works. It all clicks and creates something utterly magical. I was totally enamored with it from first to last, and was completely caught up in the drama and tension. It was uplifting and inspirational but with dramatic underpinnings that gave it some extra meat.
The casting was superb. Keke Palmer, who played the lead character, was perfect. It used to be that young actors were weak links in films and it was always a worry if a child had to carry a film. In recent years, however, this has changed and the caliber of child acting has risen dramatically. Palmer is no exception to this, and she displays an emotional depth that is completely engaging. We’re there with her when she doubts herself. We cheer at her triumphs and we share sorrow when she falters. Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne are veterans but it’s clear that they don’t treat this as an easy payday and both show their talent. The other standout performer though was J.R. Villarreal as Javier. He was hilarious and showed a warmth that was indicative of the good attitudes the film promoted. The other main character was Dylan (Afable), who was Akeelah’s fiercest competitor, and while he was distant for most of the film his character was actually quite layered too.
I found this film to be very inspiring. One of the main quotes used is one that resonated with me, and I’m going to share part of it with you here now.
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? – Marianne Williamson
I loved Akeelah’s relationship with Dr. Larabee, and found the revelations about his personal life very moving. I also liked how Akeelah had to deal with her newfound celebrity status and how people’s attitudes towards her and her community changed. At the beginning of the film all she wants to do is hide away and blend into the shadows, but by the end she’s the light that shines over her community. There was a bit of social commentary on class and race but this didn’t take away from the heart of the story, which was about a girl showing off her talent to the world.
That’s not to say the film was perfect. I thought that Akeelah’s mother was shown to be too harsh and unsympathetic early on. Couple this with the fact that Dylan’s father was very oppressive and you have a depiction of bad parenting, and we didn’t see good parents to balance that out (Javier’s weren’t shown all that much). Some of the story beats (like what happened in Larabee’s past) were predictable, and the ending was a bit of a cop out. I also thought that it was contrived; it’s a national competition yet a lot of the focus is given to three people from the same area. However, this film is so damned good at what it does that I can forgive it all that, and even though the climax is a cop out I think it was fitting with the rest of the film.
I can’t recommend this one highly enough. Akeelah and the Bee just caught me in its spell and had me completely entranced. There were parts where I was literally on the edge of my seat and I was so caught up in what was going on that I forgot this wasn’t a documentary. I think it has lessons that people of any age can learn from and I felt inspired after I watched it. Just go and watch this right now, and then go and tell everyone you know to watch it.