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Akeelah and the Bee Review

By Shawn McKenzie 04/30/2006

Recently, I completed my review of last year’s Bee Season.  I had high hopes that I would like it, because I like spelling, and I thought that the movie would be interesting (even if it did star Richard Gere…an actor I have yet to like.)  When I saw how boring and trippy it was, I was soured by the experience.  I was really hoping that Akeelah and the Bee would make up for that movie.  Fortunately, it did just that.

Eleven-year-old Akeelah Anderson (Keke Palmer) is a smart kid who lives in South Central Los Angeles.  Unfortunately, societal pressures have forced her to dumb down her intellect in order to fit in at Crenshaw Middle School.  She lives with her widowed mom, Tanya (Angela Bassett), a nurse who is too busy for her.  This is partly because she is dealing with the problems of Kiana (Erica Hubbard), Akeelah’s older sister who has a newborn of her own; and Akeelah’s brother Terrence (Julito McCullum), who is slowly falling in with a local gang, led by neighborhood gangsta Derrick-T (Eddie Steeples.)  Akeelah does have a couple of allies though.  Her best friend Georgia (Sahara Garey) encourages Akeelah’s smarts, and Akeelah looks up to her brother Devon (Lee Thompson Young), who’s training to become an Air Force pilot.  Akeelah’s father (Wolfgang Bodison) was shot and killed when she was only six years old, so these two people are the only bright spots in her life.  One of Akeelah’s teachers, Ms. Cross (Dalia Phillips), notices that Akeelah always gets her spelling tests correct, and she tells this to the principal, Bob Welch (Curtis Armstrong.)  Under the threat of detention, Bob “encourages” Akeelah to enter the school’s spelling bee, since he sees it as a way to give the school some good press by promoting a student with some astuteness.  He invites his former colleague and longtime friend Dr. Joshua Larabee (Laurence Fishburne), a professor at UCLA who has taken a hiatus from teaching for personal reasons, to watch Akeelah in the bee.  Joshua currently teaches his courses online, but after Akeelah easily wins the bee, he instantly tests Akeelah’s spelling ability with more advanced words, and he immediately recognizes that the girl has more potential than that of her peers.  Joshua was a former Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee champion himself, and he decides to mentor her on the way to the national finals.  Akeelah isn’t sure that she wants to work with him at first, because he lays out some strict rules.  He insists that she show up on time, and that she quit speaking in “ghetto talk,” because proper pronunciation is better for her in order to display her intelligence.  As time goes by, her skill improves, and she meets some peers that she can finally relate with along the way.  Javier (J.R. Villarreal) is a nice boy who helps her out on the spelling bee circuit (and develops a crush on her himself.)  Dylan Chiu (Sean Michael Afable) is a rival who seems to be in the spelling bee game only in order to please his demanding father (Tzi Ma), who will only allow a total spelling bee triumph from his son (in the movie’s only minor racist moment, Mr. Chiu is frustrated that Dylan is being beaten by a “little black girl.”)  At one point, during a crucial bee, Akeelah is almost sidelined when Tanya pulls her off the stage during the competition to confront her (Akeelah had been lying to her unsupportive mother in order to go to the bees.)  With that issue resolved, Joshua continues to push Akeelah more and more, which includes having her use the pneumatic device of tapping her fingers to her body in a rhythmic pattern in order to remember the words.  Since it is something that she has been doing anyway, he encourages it and expands upon it by having her use a jump rope to exercise her skills.  After a while, Joshua tries to deal with his own personal issues, which threatens to derail their partnership.  By this time though, her whole community, including her now supportive family and even Derrick-T, has her back, and they all assist in helping her make it to the national championship bee.

Writer/director Doug Atchison managed to exceed my expectations for the movie.  I don’t know if it was because the movie was actually entertaining or because it didn’t have any stupid flying origami birds in it like in Bee Season, but the movie left a smile on my face.  Unlike Bee Season, this movie made sense and actually had some levity in it (in one scene, Javier, in an attempt to stall for time to help out Akeelah, asks the judges if they wouldn’t mind using his word in the form of a song.)  The movie isn’t sappy (thank goodness), but it isn’t the most realistic.  Steeples…an actor whom audiences now recognize as Crab Man on NBC’s “My Name is Earl”…plays the neighborhood “gangsta” who becomes one of Akeelah’s unlikely spelling helpers.  I know that the movie is rated PG, but they could have made South Central L.A. a little more realistic in that part.  [Note:  My colleague Reggie McDaniel told me after he read my review that there are some gang members that would do that for someone like Akeelah because she would remind them of a loved one, like a little sister or cousin, so it’s a little more realistic than I originally thought.]

That bit of story quibble is minor compared to a compelling movie filled with great performances.  Everyone has told me that Palmer was in this year’s Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Family Reunion, but since I haven’t seen that movie yet, I recognize her more from the 2004 Emmy-nominated TV movie “The Wool Cap” and last year’s A&E movie “Knights of the South Bronx”…both very good TV movies.  “Cap” really showed off her acting skills, whereas “Knights” had her lost within a larger cast.  She is front and center in this movie, and she takes the reins well.  Fishburne and Bassett, a.k.a. Ike and Tina Turner from 1993’s What’s Love Got to Do with It (of which earned both actors Oscar nominations), share little screen time together, but individually, they play their parts well.  Villarreal is a real find, and I can’t wait to see him in more roles.

Okay…here come the spelling puns.  Akeelah and the Bee is a heartwarming M-O-V-I-E, and I hope that I don’t have to spell it out for you that I recommend checking it out.  I would especially recommend it to parents to bring their kids to it in order to get them excited in something like spelling, which is educational and can actually be fun.  Word up!

Get the soundtrack featuring a song by star Keke Palmer; four song scores composed by Aaron Zigman; classic R&B tunes by The Spinners, The Jackson 5, Al Green, and Aretha Franklin; and more:

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