Release Date:  April 28, 2006
Rating:  PG (for some language)
Genre:  Drama
Run Time:  112 min.
Director:  Doug Atchison
Actors:  Keke Palmer, Angela Bassett, Laurence Fishburne, Curtis Armstrong

Overcoming obstacles. Feeling like an outsider looking in. Coping with the prejudices of others. These are all common cinematic themes, but when well executed, they can result in stirring entertainment. Such is the case with "Akeelah and the Bee," a rousing story of how one young girl discovers a special talent and seeks to fulfill her intellectual potential.

Keke Palmer stars as Akeelah Anderson, a gifted 11-year-old in southern Los Angeles. Bored by her undemanding classes and ignored by those who might otherwise nurture her abilities, Akeelah drifts through her days while trying at all costs to avoid being the center of attention. She aces her class tests but keeps a low profile both at school – where classmates taunt anyone with an academic ability and intellectual curiosity – and at home, where her hard-working mother, Tanya (Angela Bassett), copes with a rebellious son.

Although Akeelah skipped the second grade, no one since seems to have taken notice of her academic giftedness. The school’s run-down appearance and lack of funding have become a vicious circle.

Enter Dr. Larabee (Laurence Fishburne), a former Scripps National Spelling Bee finalist, who senses the same knack for spelling within Akeelah. He alerts the school principal, Mr. Welch (Curtis Armstrong), who sees in Akeelah a golden opportunity for a flood of positive PR, and a subsequent increase in funding. He pushes Akeelah to train under Dr. Larabee for a series of spelling bees that will culminate in the national Scripps contest.

The relationship between the two spelling experts gets off to a rocky start, but once Akeelah accepts Dr. Larabee’s terms and conditions, her efforts bear fruit. Only after she begins to believe in herself does she confront her mother’s indifference, and confess her deceptive efforts to advance her own cause. Once the air is cleared, Akeelah can fulfill her desire to move forward in the spelling competitions.

But Dr. Larabee isn’t the only source of Akeelah’s inspiration. She also finds strength in a framed quote, hanging on Larabee’s wall, that mentions the “glory of God within us.” The quote is attributed, in the film, to Nelson Mandela, but it actually comes from Marianne Williamson’s “A Return to Love,” a popular guide to New Age spiritual principles. Viewers are strongly cautioned to be on their guard and to explain how Robinson’s views deviate from orthodox spirituality.

The spelling-bee scenes are full of tension, relieved somewhat by the filmmakers’ decision to give Akeelah a cherubic friend among her competitors. Although there are no villains in "Akeelah and the Bee," the contestants are shown to be at the mercy of certain cultural and generational forces, but some of these forces – such as Akeelah’s troubled neighborhood – are transformed into pillars of support through Akeelah’s success.

The filmmakers have settled on a somewhat awkward conclusion that is nevertheless effective and gratifying. Palmer is impressive as Akeelah, and Fishburne is steady, but Bassett’s ferocious performance as Akeelah’s mother is the best of the bunch, a reminder of how great she can be when given the right part. If there’s a mark against "Akeelah and the Bee," it’s the unwise decision to spice up the script with a few unnecessary words that mar an otherwise wonderful, inspirational family film, and the movie’s embrace of Williamson’s quote.

Thankfully, there’s another choice for families who want strictly “G”-rated entertainment that extols academic excellence:  the wonderful Oscar-nominated documentary, “Spellbound,” focusing on several contestants in the 1999 National Spelling Bee, is available on video. It’s a great alternative selection, or, for those who venture out to "Akeelah and Bee," it’s an excellent companion piece.

CAUTIONS:

  • Language/Profanity: Some cussing. Dr. Larabee instructs Akeelah that there will be “no ghetto talk” during their lessons.
  • Drugs/Alcohol: Akeelah’s mom smokes; Dr. Larabee drinks.
  • Sex/Nudity: Akeelah and another boy kiss each other.
  • Violence: Akeelah’s brother, part of a group of thugs, is brought home to his distressed mother by the police.
  • Dishonesty: Akeelah forges her mother’s signature on an approval slip. Akeelah skips classes she finds unchallenging, but doesn’t tell her mother.
  • Spirituality: Dr. Larabee has a framed quote that says we are “born to make manifest the glory of God within us.” The quote is attributed, in the film, to Nelson Mandela, but it actually comes from a much more troubling source: Marianne Williamson’s “Return to Love.”