Akeelah and the Bee
Reviewed by: Jonathan Rodriguez
Better than Average
Drama, Kids, Family
1 hr. 52 min.
Year of Release:
April 28, 2006 (wide)
“Changing the world… one word at a time.”
Keke Palmer stars as Akeelah Anderson, an eleven year-old girl from South Central Los Angeles whose hard work and determination land her in the National Spelling Bee in “Akeelah and the Bee”. Spelling is Akeelah’s forte, but skipping class is something she does just as well. This gets her into some trouble with her school’s principal, who presents her with an ultimatum—detention for the rest of the school year, or sign up for the school spelling bee. She chooses the latter, which ends up being more of a joke of a spelling bee than anything; the first participant would rather talk about the condition of the school’s basketball equipment than spell and the hecklers seem to far outweigh the supporters. Akeelah wins the bee easily, which catches the attention of Dr. Josh Larabee (Laurence Fishburne), a former college professor and National Spelling Bee participant, who stands up after Akeelah wins and asks her to spell words most of the adults in the room had never even heard of.
Dr. Larabee believes Akeelah has a gift that could land her in the National Bee, and offers to tutor Akeelah in the study habits he feels are necessary to win. Akeelah has no desire to participate in any more spelling bees (the children at her school have no tolerance for “smart kids” and Akeelah would much rather have friends than win bees), but is coaxed into competing in the next round by her older brother. This begins her trek to Nationals, but the road there may be harder, and more costly, than she imagined.
The objectionable content in “Akeelah and the Bee” is limited to profanity. While there is far less than there could have been for a film that takes place in South L.A., there is enough language to small children away. There is one use of the s-word, as well as a few d-words. There is also a scene where one of the boy’s innocently kisses Akeelah on the cheek, but then asks if she is going to sue him for sexual harassment. It is a harmless scene, but one that may require explaining to smaller children.
“Akeelah and the Bee” deals with a number of important issues that makes it worthwhile for children to see. While there is the obvious lesson of hard work and studying, we also get discussions on death, friendship, fear, lying to parents, cheating, race, upper and lower class segregation, and showing love to those who may not seem to deserve it. The final act of the film, which ventures into some unexpected areas, brilliantly deals with sportsmanship, and the how winning isn’t always the most important thing.
“Akeelah and the Bee” is an unconventional film, in a conventional film’s body. We have seen this kind of movie before—kid rises from the slums to achieve great success with the help of a wise, mysterious person. The difference, I guess, with “Akeelah” is the emotional depth it brings, without ever coming across as forced. In movies like this there is usually always some sort of climactic scene near the end where everything is in jeopardy, but those scenes are generally far-fetched and occur only in movies and not the real world. “Akeelah” contains great drama, but it all seems plausible, as if Akeelah is a real girl and we are watching her documentary.
In addition, the performances are simply outstanding. Keke Palmer is incredible as Akeelah in a film that requires her to actually act. This isn’t a movie where she gets to look cute, spell a few words, and shed a few tears. She must bring great emotional depth to her performance, and Palmer does so magnificently. Laurence Fishburne is one of our better actors, and I can’t remember the last time he was this good. His performance requires him to be stern, yet guarded, caring, yet vulnerable. This is not an easy task, yet Fishburne makes it happen in what may be the year’s first Oscar worthy supporting performance. And of course we get a great performance from Angela Bassett, who plays Akeelah’s mother.
If the reaction “Akeelah and the Bee” got in the theater I attended is any indication of how the rest of the country will receive it, it may be one of the biggest surprise hits of the year. The children in the theater were spelling along with Akeelah, cheering her every step of the way. I don’t think I have ever been to a movie that got this much applause during its exciting scenes, but then again, “Akeelah and the Bee” isn’t like most other movies I have seen in the theater. I strongly recommend the film, and hope word of mouth helps make “Akeelah” a hit.
Violence: None / Profanity: Mild / Sex/Nudity: None
Note to teachers: Free educational guides are available at AkeelahAndTheBee.com