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8 reviews, 21 user ratings

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Akeelah and the Bee
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by Mel Valentin

"Unlikely to appeal to adults without children."
3 stars

After "Spellbound" and "Bee Season," do theatergoers need another film where a spelling bee plays a key part in turning around the lives of the central characters? Probably not, but "Akeelah and the Bee," an "underdog" story centered on an eleven-year old, inner-city African-American girl who competes in the national spelling bee, was written more than half a decade ago by writer/director Doug Atchison. Atchison’s film is badly timed, since "Akeelah and the Bee" will be criticized for being derivative, but Atchison’s film still manages to work on an emotional level, while touching on thought provoking racial, class, and cultural issues. "Akeelah and the Bee" is also highly manipulative and sentimental, unlikely to appeal to sophisticated adult audiences (parents with children will think differently, though).

Akeelah Anderson (Keke Palmer) is among the brightest students at her school, but she also underachieves. She often skips class with her best friend, Georgia (Sahara Garey). Although she has a partly innate love of words and language, Akeelah cautiously hides her natural intelligence and curiosity to fit in at school and at home. Akeelah lives with her single mother, Tanya (Angela Bassett), a hardworking hospital employee, her older sister, Kiana (Erica Hubbard), a single mother, and older brother Terrence, a gangbanger wannabee. Her oldest brother, Devon (Lee Thompson Young), presents another alternative: he’s joined the Air Force to get a college education.

Mr. Welch (Curtis Armstrong), Akeelah's principal, encourages an uninterested Akeelah to compete in the school's spelling bee. She wins the competition easily earning a berth in the district competition. Welch brings in an old friend, Dr. Joshua Larabee (Laurence Fishburne), a college professor on sabbatical, to observe Akeelah. Despite reservations, Larabee agrees to tutor Akeelah. Akeelah's headstrong, of course, and bridles at Larabee's no-nonsense methods. While he tutors Akeelah to prepare for the spelling bees, Larabee also hopes to impart his appreciation of African-American literature and culture to Akeelah. Grudging mutual respect and admiration follows.

Along the way to the national spelling bee in Washington, D.C., Akeelah acquires some new braining friends, including Javier (J.R. Villarreal), a Latino boy from a more affluent family and picks up an unfriendly nemesis in the humorless Dylan (Sean Michael), a two-time national runner-up and Dylan’s hard-driving, immigrant father, Mr. Chiu (Tzi Ma). You can guess where Akeelah and the Bee ends, but to Atchison’s credit, it takes a slightly different road to get there.

Akeelah and the Bee has everything the typical “underdog” story has, a sympathetic lead character (she’s lost her father, lives in an impoverished neighborhood), the tough, but compassionate, hiding-a-secret mentor, multiple obstacles and reversals (both personal and external) and, of course, a series of competitions where Akeelah gets the chance to prove herself. Formulas work for a reason, though, and “underdog” stories especially, due to their simple storylines of adversity and triumph, plus their life-affirming optimism that taps into the American ethos of personal responsibility and individualism. While Akeelah and the Bee doesn’t meaningfully stretch or overturn the formula, the culture-specific aspects of the storyline do. Atchison makes a potentially controversial point about the “flattening effect” some minority communities have on children marked as somehow special or talented (e.g., their talents are subtly undermined or otherwise discouraged).

On the negative side, Atchison over-sentimentalizes Akeelah’s personal journey. Atchison has Akeelah talk to a photo of her father, and during the climactic spelling bee, continually cuts back to different locations back in L.A. (which continues even after the spelling bee ends). He also lays on the syrupy musical cues to underline key emotional moments. Did Atchison really have to make the villain a stereotypical Asian-American father/coach and his equally driven son? To be fair, though, Atchison humanizes Dylan right before the national spelling bee, making him a sympathetic victim of his father's obsession.

Akeelah and the Bee also suffers from more than a few continuity errors, but they’re relatively minor (and for most viewers, easily forgiven or overlooked). Laurence Fishburne performance as Akeelah’s mentor turns out to be the standout performance here. Despite some trite dialogue, Fishburne imbues his character with gravitas and pathos, especially during Larabee’s key confessional scene. Angela Bassett, alas, is sadly wasted in an underwritten role. In her first role, newcomer Keke Palmer shows some promise as Akeelah. The same, though, can’t be said for the other child actors who end up giving unpolished, overemphatic performances.

If "Akeelah and the Bee" is any indication, Atchison is a better screenwriter than director, but family-oriented viewers will be more than willing to look past "Akeelah and the Bee’s" technical shortcomings and enjoy the straightforward, optimistic storyline.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=14219&reviewer=402
originally posted: 05/23/06 19:36:55
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Philadelphia Film Festival For more in the 2006 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Tribeca Film Festival For more in the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

2/01/11 Mary It is so awesome..everybody should watch this... 5 stars
10/08/07 lily wow i loved it i seriosly did it was great well done 5 stars
9/13/07 Tracy Great movie, great actors 5 stars
8/15/07 chosha I'm with Staci. You missed the point, and some excellent themes, well-rendered. 5 stars
4/28/07 David Pollastrini pretty dull 3 stars
4/13/07 Hugh jass It was total crap 1 stars
11/05/06 anitamich Is there a more perfect movie than this one? I don't think so! 5 stars
10/21/06 Tanya Grays wonderful, for all ages 5 stars
10/15/06 Jim Morpheus gives Akeelah the red pill and she wakes up in Washington DC 4 stars
9/24/06 Lisa Craven Loved seeing Fisbourne and Bassett together again. Keke is a rising star, too. 4 stars
6/11/06 Heather Laurence Fishburne is amazing, great movie 5 stars
6/09/06 Ally Wow! I've never been more proud to be a Spelling Bee champion in my life! Empowering! 5 stars
5/23/06 Cindy Formula plot but with a nice twist at the end. Good for an underdog takes all pix. 3 stars
5/19/06 Staci Goss doesn't get it. This movie is NEEDED for the Black community. My girls and I loved it! 5 stars
5/15/06 Julie J LOVED IT!! What a feel good movie 5 stars
5/13/06 K. Pearlman Sorry , this one does not tappeal -reality is closer than it appears.... 2 stars
5/12/06 millersxing Inspires folks to overcome social pressures and dream big. 4 stars
5/07/06 Victoria Akeelah and the Bee was great and i think that everyone should see it. 5 stars
5/06/06 Mase If you can't stomach watching a far supieror documentary "spellbound", this will do. 4 stars
4/23/06 D T Hutchinson Awesome, awesome, film. This is the best feel good movies thus far this year. 5 stars
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  28-Apr-2006 (PG)
  DVD: 29-Aug-2006



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