Akeelah and the Bee (2006)

Cynthia Fuchs

It is in her relationships with other kids that Akeelah becomes unusual even within her formula film.

Akeelah and the Bee

Director: Doug Atchison
Cast: Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Keke Palmer, Curtis Armstrong, Sean Michael, J.R. Villarreal
MPAA rating: PG
Studio: Lions Gate
First date: 2006
US Release Date: 2006-04-28

"You know that feeling, that no matter what you do or where you go, you just don't fit in?" Akeelah (Keke Palmer) is a resolute, self-protecting 11-year-old. As much as she feels alone, though, Akeelah is one of those movie kids with a gift and a purpose. As her movie's title suggests, Akeelah's gift is the "bee" -- she can spell like nobody's business.

Uplifting and charming, Akeelah and the Bee begins as her gift is discovered, first by a teacher (Dalia Phillips), and then by her principal, Bob Welch (Curtis Armstrong). When he determines that she might publicize his Crenshaw middle school by performing well at a local bee, she resists: "Why would anyone want to represent a school that can't even put doors on the toilets?" she asks. Bob takes her point, but sees a bigger picture, and finds a way to get Akeelah to the bee, namely, by threat of detention.

Luckily, this bit of regular plot (white authority figure saves the underclass child) is cut short when Bob brings along his friend, Dr. Larabee (Laurence Fishburne) to watch Akeelah compete. Erstwhile chair of the English Department at UCLA and currently in need of a project, Larabee is impressed by her prodigious and immediately visible talent, and so he agrees to be her coach. The first hitch -- and there will be several in this formulaic film -- is that Akeelah doesn't quite trust this interloper, and is disinclined to give up what she understands as her individuality to accommodate him. Larabee, however, points out that her notion of independence is only conformity. "Leave that ghetto talk outside," he instructs when she visits him in his garden. "Here you will speak properly or you won't speak at all." The man won't tolerate "insolent little girls."

So begins Akeelah's education, as she apologizes for being "insolent" and hunkers down to train for the next bee. The film focuses on Akeelah's time with adults -- her growing respect for Larabee and his increasing trust of her; her evolving relationship with her practical-minded and hardworking Tanya (Angela Bassett). Because her mom prohibits her from competing, Akeelah spends the first part of the film lying to her.

But if that sounds standard-issue for the "kids' competition" film, it is in her relationships with other kids that Akeelah becomes unusual even within her formula film. On its surface, the film's rendition of her many friendships and affiliations seems straight-up corny. She goes through some back-and-forth with her best friend at school, Kiana (Erica Hubbard), who thrills to Akeelah's success initially, then feels left out of the bee crowd. This consists of montage spellers at the microphone and a couple of consistent competitors, her new friend Javier (J.R. Villarreal), and a rival, Dylan (Sean Michael). They make her feel like less of a misfit, because they share her interests, her drive, and, at least to an extent, her gift. These kids serve mainly as devices to illuminate Akeelah by their differences from her: Javier is sweet, well-adjusted, and develops something of a crush on Akeelah (he kisses her on the cheek, and explains, "I had an impulse!"), Dylan is bullied by his over-invested father (Tzi Ma), and so inspires her generosity even when he tries to intimidate her (a trick he's apparently learned from dad).

Akeelah's got a different sort of relationship with her dad, who was shot dead in the neighborhood when she was six. Apparently, before then, he inculcated in her a desire to spell, and so she gazes on his photo each night and pledges to please him with her newfound opportunities. Too often in kids' competitions movies, the activity helps bring families together, ands this one does that and something else, as Akeelah seeks support from her neighbors as well (and who can resist this child?).

This is initiated when she has a bit of tension with her older brother Terrence (Julito McCullum), who thinks he wants to hang out on corners with the other tough kids. The head gangsta in charge, Derrick-T (formerly OfficeMax's Rubberband Man Eddie Steeples) rolls up as she's trying to get Terrence to help her spell, and he's saying no, until Derrick-T instructs him otherwise. A couple of scenes later, when a montage shows Akeelah gathering together resources from around the neighborhood to help her train for the upcoming Big Bee (including the Chinese grocer and the mailman), she's got the bangers schooling her with flashcards. It's one giddy little moment out of many, a sign both of this movie's silliness and its delights.

In large part, these delights have to do with Palmer's winning performance, most apparent in one-on-one scenes with Tanya or Larabee. But the movie has something else going on as well. Embracing the conventions that make so many other genre films feel stale, Akeelah torques them slightly too. Akeelah finds her spelling in a particular sort of physical rhythm, tapping out letters on her thigh with her fingers or hearing the letters in her head as she jumps rope. She not only embodies her gift and her passion, but she also inspires new ways of thinking about intellectual activities. When Larabee tells her that he needs "a lot of order" in his life, Akeelah demonstrates original ways that order might be felt.


To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less

Award-winning folk artist Karine Polwart showcases humankind's innate link to the natural world in her spellbinding new music video.

One of the breakthrough folk artists of our time, Karine Polwart's work is often related to the innate connection that humanity has to the natural world. Her latest album, A Pocket of Wind Resistance, is largely reliant on these themes, having come about after Polwart observed the nature of a pink-footed geese migration and how it could be related to humankind's intrinsic dependency on one another.

Keep reading... Show less

Victory Is Never Assured in ‘Darkest Hour’

Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour (2017) (Photo by Jack English - © 2017 FOCUS FEATURES LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. / IMDB)

Joe Wright's sharp and only occasionally sentimental snapshot of Churchill in extremis as the Nazi juggernaut looms serves as a handy political strategy companion piece to the more abstracted combat narrative of Dunkirk.

By the time a true legend has been shellacked into history, almost the only way for art to restore some sense of its drama is to return to the moment and treat it as though the outcome were not a foregone conclusion. That's in large part how Christopher Nolan's steely modernist summer combat epic Dunkirk managed to sustain tension; that, and the unfortunate yet dependable historical illiteracy of much of the moviegoing public.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.