How to Spell American
At the 1999 Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee’s hotel headquarters in Washington, DC, a gigantic American flag vertically blankets at least seven floors. Engaged in tense competition, a diverse group of elementary and middle school children in the hotel’s first floor conference room dissect words like “Darjeeling” and “heleoplankton”—these among the easiest words offered to the young contestants. Parents in the audience clutch pocketbooks, papers, and hands, willing their progeny to succeed on several levels: as the best speller in the country, as an upwardly mobile mover and shaker, as an achiever of the American Dream.
Ostensibly, Spellbound (Oscar-nominated for Dest Documentary) is about eight children fighting their way to the spelling championships and, hopefully, to the title of best speller in the country. But the film uses spelling bees as an allegory for the immigrant and minority experience in the United States. It’s about race and class (in the gentlest possible way) and instructs in how a solid work ethic and dedication pay off. This is also perhaps the most disconcerting aspect of Spellbound; while, most of the time, it’s charming and exciting and almost unbearably funny, its inspirational message has a veneer of what is at best naïvete, at worst untruth. Ignoring how obstacles like class and race are often not overcome despite hard work, the film concludes that even if one is an outsider one can find a place to belong in America. In depicting their struggle for the American Dream, Spellbound can be as wide-eyed and innocent as its young subjects.
Harry, Angela, Ted, April, Neil, Nupur, Ashley, and Emily, the competitors director Jeffrey Blitz follows from hometown to championship, are all outsiders in one way or another. As the primary marker of their outsider status, all have the hard-to-shake sheen of the nerd, only exacerbated by their distinctly uncool obsession with spelling. April remarks that she does, indeed, have interests other than spelling, which include such hobbies as drinking coffee. But aside from the time invested in caffeine addiction, April, like the other spellers, spends most of her time preparing for the championships. Some contestants study upwards of four hours every day, and some, like Neil, who hails from a wealthy Indian family, are privately tutored by French, Spanish and German instructors—just in case a competition word is rooted in one of those languages.
Yet there is room for some peer (and self) esteem to be found in the national spelling competition. Angela, whose father is a cattle herder for a Texas rancher in a depressed town, smiles bewilderedly through her braces at classmates who hug her in the school hallway before she leaves for DC; “I don’t even know some of these kids!” she remarks with awe. Like many of the children in Spellbound, Angela is the child of immigrant parents. Her father doesn’t speak English, though he emigrated from Mexico 20 years ago. In what may be the film’s only truly biting moment, the rancher for whom Mr. Arenivar works remarks that he is a “good Mexican,” with a good work ethic.
But ignorant older bigots are easy to pick on, and Spellbound isn’t all that concerned with bias and obstacle. Rather, it bypasses these serious issues by leaping straight to the inspirational (and, in a way, unconsciously mirroring the attitudes of the rancher). See, it says, look at how far immigrants can go! A first-generation American and already she’s a regional spelling bee champ! And her parents don’t even speak English!
Obstacles and prejudice—which in this film seem to be overcome with relative ease—are not unique to Angela. Ashley hails from a lower-income African American family in DC and Neil and Nupur, as mentioned above, are Indian immigrants. Spellbound, though, is not really about differences, racial, class-based, or otherwise, but about finding a place to fit in. And that’s part of the film’s ultimate problem: it dismisses differences as minor, easily surmountable obstacles, that must be overcome in order to be “properly” American.
While seeing the contestants relate to one another is heartwarming, Spellbound tends to ignore the fact that ethnic and class differences are what make the whole idea of America interesting and vibrant. It fixates, instead, on how to get past those differences and stereotypes, and works to assure the audience that “they” are just like “us.” Like the rancher who employs Angela’s father, Spellbound sometimes assumes a prejudice against immigrants and does its best to show us that these are the “good, hard-working” type, the type who deserve to succeed and to “fit in.” The problem the film encounters is that it assumes a division: productive immigrants versus unproductive ones.
In this focus on “good” productive citizenship, these minority subjects, child and adult alike, seem to have bought fully into the message. Several parents remark that in America you really can achieve class mobility, so long as you work hard and stay in school. A nice thought, but one that, most would agree, is not necessarily true.
Spellbound takes this ideological conceit at face value and offers it as a token of inspiration, when in fact other examples within the film contradict this rousing message. Angela’s parents, for instance, are “good,” “hard-working” people, yet they remain firmly stuck in a small house in a depressed Texas town, indebted to the work provided by the white rancher. This film never deals with this kind of disappointment, only the endless possibility of success. For a documentary, Spellbound doesn’t seem grounded in reality.
In truth, Spellbound‘s charms are many, and stem mostly from the delightful children profiled and their hilarious, over-the-top parents. Yet the cutaways to the American flags hanging inside and out of the DC hotel (of which there are many), the references to the land of the free, and the focus on the ease of achieving the American Dream keep it on the level of a somewhat simplistic fantasy.
Blitz guides us through the journey with an overly gentle touch, as though the tensions of the spelling bee were enough for our tender nerves. Blitz’s mistake is in assuming that we are as delicate as the children he interviews; in the end, all of the inspiration and flag-waving makes one feel not only led by the hand, but led by a government official determined to prove that America is beautiful and integrated.