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Akeelah and the Bee (2006)
A New Twist on the Student-Teacher Film
"Akeelah and the Bee" tells the story of an 11 year old child prodigy named Akeelah Anderson (Keke Palmer). Though she lives in the notorious section of South Central Los Angeles, she is able to rise above her situation. We are told straight off that she's special. Akeelah skipped the second grade and despite admitting that she didn't study for a spelling test, she receives an A+ anyway. It is her special talent at spelling which catches the attention of her teacher, principal (Curtis Armstrong), and a former professor, Joshua Larabee, who will later become her coach (Laurence Fishburne). Under the professor's expert tutelage, with the support of her school and community, and her own unique talent Akeelah finds herself at the regional, state, and finally the national spelling bee in Washington D.C.
As with many student-teacher movies, Akeelah and the Bee borrows themes from other successful films in this genre. The teacher with a tragic past (The Karate Kid), the minority student from the wrong side of the tracks (Stand and Deliver), the doubting parent who eventually comes around and acknowledges the child's talent (Billy Elliot). However, this film has a character we have rarely if ever seen before a black, female child prodigy. There have been films that have portrayed African-American students, but they are usually paired with a Caucasian mentor (Finding Forrester). Here we see a black, female child prodigy whose mentor is also black, yet race is not a forefront issue in the film. It is delicately touched upon in a couple scenes such as Akeelah's best friend who is hesitant to join a suburban birthday party whose guests appear to be primarily white or the father of Akeelah's rival who reprimands his son for almost having lost what was to be a fun game of Scrabble to a "little black girl." The father and son at first appear to be stereotypical Asian characters, but we later learn that perhaps there is more to them than just a diligent Asian work ethic. Likewise, Akeelah's love interest, Javier Mendez (J.R. Villareal), doesn't fit the Latino stereotype as he's from a affluent suburban neighborhood with a journalist father. Even the leader of her brother's gang defies stereotypes when he orders the brother to help his sister study rather than hang out with the gang.
As Akeelah's success increases so does the mounting pressure. With each win she sees her popularity spreading both in her community and through the media. The stakes are high. A national win means prestige and a much needed cash boost for her economically depressed school, and proving to her detractors that a little black girl from the ghetto can win a national academic contest.
Like many underdog stories (Rocky), we are doubtless rooting for Akeelah not only to win the national spelling bee, but also in her personal life. She is surrounded by reminders of where she comes from. At home her brother has joined a gang and her sister is a single mother. Her ticket out of the old neighborhood and to college may rest solely on her success in spelling since she's failing other subjects. Along with the underdog and student-teacher themes, the film also borrows elements from other movies such as the deceased father (Little Voice) and has the usual stock characters such as the wisecracking best friend.
Despite these cinematic clichés, Akeelah and the Bee, displayed several moments of humor and charm an example being the affection between Akeelah and Javier. It also attempts to break down racial and social stereotypes by adding additional layers to characters that could easily have been categorized as flat. The film's greatest strength is the fine performances by the actors in particular, young Keke Palmer. Ms. Palmer whom I have last seen in the A&E movie, "Knights of the South Bronx," is an exceptional child actress with a grace and intelligence needed to succeed in the business. She is reminiscent of a young Jodi Foster, and I hope like Ms. Foster, Ms. Palmer will find comparable success.