Akeelah and the Bee
—2. Cast and Crew
—3. Photo Pages
—4. Trailers, Clips, DVDs, Books, Soundtrack
—5. Posters (school)
—6. Production Notes (pdf)
—7. Spiritual Connections
—8. Presentation Downloads
Having survived the nerve-racking experience of watching multiple spelling bees as the father of a contestant, I’ve seen spelling bees bring out the best in their competitors – and the worst in some of the parents.
Akeelah and the Bee, the story of a trip to the National Spelling Bee by a girl from south-central Los Angeles, accurately captures the feel of spelling bee competitions as it tells an inspiring and uplifting personal story. The National Spelling Bee has been the subject of films before, most notably 2002’s independent documentary, Spellbound. What sets Akeelah and the Bee apart is that it’s like Rocky for the mind.
Eleven-year-old Akeelah Anderson (Keke Palmer) plays Scrabble on her family’s computer as a way to grieve her dead father. Not wanting to be criticized by her peers for her spelling abilities, she refuses invitations by her teacher and principal to compete in Crenshaw Middle School’s first spelling bee. “Why would anyone want to represent a school where they can’t even put doors on the toilet stalls?” she says. But forced to choose between spelling and detention, Akeelah enters and wins the school spelling bee, where she encounters Dr. Joshua Larabee, a UCLA professor (played by Laurence Fishburne) and friend of her principal, who offers to be her coach.
Both Akeelah and the viewers are taken on a journey through not only difficult spelling words and languages of origin, but into self-understanding, an examination of the nature of competition and into grasping communal nature of self-advancement.
It always surprises me how many Christians express difficulty with any form of competition, advocating a de-emphasis of sports and games of strategy as well as promoting non-competitive games (which sometimes are even duller than a film without conflict). “Iron sharpens iron,” says Proverbs 27:17, “and one person sharpens the wits of another.” At its heart, Akeelah and the Bee is about competition: what it takes to be our best and to bring out the best in others.
In her first major competition, the Los Angeles citywide bee, Akeelah meets Dylan Chiu (Sean Michael), who has finished second twice in the National Spelling Bee. Almost from the start, a rivalry begins. When Akeelah is the first person ever to almost defeat Dylan in Scrabble, she overhears Dylan’s father tell him: “If you can’t beat a little black girl at a silly board game, how can you expect to win the National Spelling Bee? You’re not coming in second three years in a row.”
Lest you think that father’s characterization over the top, here are the first words of consolation my wife heard from a parent’s mouth after his son didn’t advance beyond a city spelling bee: “You’ve got some word lists to go over when we get home, young man.”
Another contestant, Javier (J.R. Villarreal), provides the best example of a worthy competitor. A spelling bee veteran, he gives Akeelah some tips in her first major bee competition and, afterward, invites her to a study group at his school. His character’s self-confidence, charm and empathy provides some of the high points in the film, including when he stalls to gain more time for Akeelah by asking repeated questions, including, “Could you use the word in a song?”
The 1-hour-and-52-minute film also demonstrates that it takes a village to make a speller. Contestants make it to the National Spelling Bee because they have a depth of support including parents, friends, family, teachers, schools and coaches. At first, Akeelah competes over the objections of her mother, Tanya Anderson (Angela Bassett), who is too focused on the problems of single motherhood. But as she succeeds, Akeelah stands as an example of encouragement to her mother, her brother and even one of the local gang members who recalls with fondness his school days of writing poetry. Much like a champion local sports team, Akeelah’s success lifts up the hopes of her neighborhood.
Akeelah also learns that good spelling is not simply an end in itself, but a means to becoming a better person. Larabee coaches her by having Akeelah read from the speeches of civil-rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and W.E.B. Dubois. And he challenges the way she perceives her world and understands herself, using this quote from author Marianne Williamson: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be?”
Through her coach, Akeelah also learns something about the nature of her spelling gifts that was present from the start and plays a primary role in her ongoing success.
A great family film and one of the best films of 2006 so far, Akeelah and the Bee was written and directed by Doug Atchison, winning the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting in 2000. Some critics have derided it as overly contrived. Nevertheless, that didn’t prevent the audience at my screening from cheering and applauding each correctly spelled word in its waning moments. When a film enables viewers to lose themselves in the story, it succeeds.