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Guts and Glory in Akeelah and the Bee

by Glen Baity

Congratulations, everyone ‘— you made it through the harsh winter months, and your reward awaits in the coming weeks: a new X-Men , a new Superman ‘— even M:I:3 doesn’t look that bad. Yes, from where I sit, there’s a sand-pail of promise for a good summer to come.

But before you go skipping off into the vast, cacophonous world of summertime movies, with its gratuitous explosions and talking cars and swashbuckling Johnny Depps, stop for a second and take in this little ray of sunshine, Akeelah and the Bee , that crept into wide release last week.

This film, simply put, is one of the best, most uplifting family films in years, maybe ever, chronicling the journey of young Akeelah Anderson (Keke Palmer), a student at Crenshaw Middle School in Los Angeles. At the age of 11, she can spell ‘“prestidigitation’” without flinching, even if she has a habit of skipping class out of sheer boredom. Akeelah is sharp as a tack, a fact she hides from her peers to keep from getting bullied any more than is absolutely necessary.

When her principal (Curtis Armstrong) forces her to participate in the school spelling bee as punishment for her excessive absences, she comes to the attention of Dr. Joshua Larabee, a retired Harvard professor and former spelling bee champion, who subsequently steps in to coach the young prodigy. The two strike up a cautious friendship while Akeelah prepares to enter territory uncharted by any previous Crenshaw student: the stage of the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Regular readers of this column know how much loathing I tend to heap on cliché and predictability, so if it seems like my praise for this film is inconsistent with my long-professed standards, I guess that’s just something you’re going to have to hash out among yourselves. Let me state right off that not for a second is the outcome of this film in doubt ‘— the warm colors and the inspirational soundtrack point directly to a conclusion you can see coming well in advance. There are no ‘“gotcha’” moments here, but there are surprises in the film.

Those surprises are in just how gutsy Akeelah is in confronting some of its central issues: in a conversation with a few kids from a rich school across town, for example, Akeelah is advised that Latin classes help spelling, since so many modern English words are derived from the ancient language. Akeelah laughs at the idea of Latin classes at Crenshaw, a school she points out ‘“can’t even afford to put doors on the toilet stalls.’” It’s impressive to see funding inequalities among public schools addressed so bluntly, and writer/director Doug Atchison is to be commended for not shrinking from the reality of Akeelah’s school life.

The film also takes on children’s tendency to play dumb, specifically, we’re told, in the African-American community, where kids can be ostracized if they seem too smart to their classmates. While this is certainly a black issue, it’s also something kids do, to varying degrees, in every school in America, and I think every kid over the age of 9 should see this film simply for the high value it assigns to intelligence.

At the center of everything is 12-year-old Keke Palmer as the title character, who delivers what might be one of the best performances by a child actor I’ve ever seen. Her every movement is natural and perfectly believable, and she instills this role with grace and endless charm. It’s hard to even call what she does here ‘“acting’” ‘— it’s so much better than that, so much more genuine, and it’s impossible to imagine the role being played by another young actor

If Palmer were partnered with anyone less than Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett, her supporting cast might be overshadowed, but both of those veterans have shown up with some of the best work of their careers. Fishburne’s Dr. Larabee exudes the stern dignity of Furious Styles, while Bassett’s hard-fighting mother figure volleys effortlessly between strength and vulnerability. Both score high marks for completing this ensemble, alongside JR Villarreal and Sean Michael as Akeelah’s fellow competitors.

Akeelah and the Bee isn’t without its flaws ‘— some of the script’s exuberance is imperiled by unneeded montage sequences, and it’s pretty unbelievable to see how well everything works out for everyone in the end, but as feel-good movies go, this one does its job despite some unrealistic indulgences.

The most praiseworthy aspect of the film is how its characters, despite some pitfalls, unashamedly pursue excellence, and it’s a message young people simply can’t hear enough. To watch Akeelah try to simultaneously meet the expectations of her peers and her educators is to revisit middle school vicariously, and Atchison has captured those feelings of anguish and awkwardness with keen insight.

Akeelah carries the weight and importance the academy obviously thought Crash did, but it’s so much more impressive than last year’s ‘“best’” picture because it goes well beyond simply acknowledging that inequalities exist (a point Crash made, and made, and made, and made); instead, it offers an exit strategy to that cycle, and it lays out what is required of those who want in. This is a fantastic film, a great teaching tool, and an impressive, star-making performance for Palmer. Here’s hoping Oscar can spell ‘“Akeelah.’”

Teach Glen Baity the definition of ‘“s-u-c-k’” when you e-mail your comments to glen.baity@gmail.com.

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