U.S. Release Date: April 28, 2006
Distributor: Lionsgate
Cast: Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Keke Palmer
Running Time: 1 hour and 52 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG (some language)

Scholastic Drama Spellbinds
by Scott Holleran

Taking a rare premise these days, the development of a child's mind, Akeelah and the Bee dramatizes how a child learns to think and how her pursuit of knowledge inspires an entire community. This picture's for anyone who had a favorite subject in school.

Scholastic goals are perceived as a sign of inferiority in thug-infested South Central Los Angeles, where the movie takes place, and Akeelah—a bright girl in a troubled family headed by a hard-working widow (Angela Bassett)—is fed up with her neighborhood, her family and her peers, whom she believes punish her for being smarter than other kids.

Akeelah is right: they do, because she is smarter—much smarter—and, for making a movie about a person of ability instead of Hollywood's usual derelicts, degenerates and various malcontents, writer and director Doug Atchison deserves the highest praise. Akeelah knows how to spell and excel and this is her story.

As spectacled Akeelah, 12-year-old Illinois actress Keke Palmer is perfect, possessing an earnest, confident disposition and letting her eyes do the acting to show that her character makes thoughtful, qualified judgments about the world around her. An excellent cast aids her.

Among them are Sahara Grey as her best friend Georgia, who wants to be a stewardess and isn't afraid of being the only one to cheer her girlfriend on when the rest of the school's losers ridicule Akeelah for spelling beyond the low limits of a government-sponsored education. There is also Lee Thompson Young as her kind, handsome older brother—a fine young man who serves in the military—who is Akeelah's hero.

A teacher is encouraging, but Akeelah, beaten by bullies for being intelligent and missing her late Scrabble-proficient dad, finds guidance in an older college professor (Laurence Fishburne)—one who actually knows something of value and exercises discrimination in deciding whom to teach. Sounding her letters in rhythm as she spells those million-dollar words, Akeelah makes his cut. Once he bans that ghetto language habit of hers, Prof takes her on for tutoring.

The journey to the national spelling bee is predictable but multi-faceted: her mother (Bassett, re-teaming with Fishburne for the first time since What's Love Got to Do with It) rewards the problem child, neglects the child of the mind but learns to be a proper parent; Akeelah's sister, an unwed mother, demands justice for her kid sister; a rich kid (JR Villareal) has a knack for stand-up comedy and a soft spot for the adorable South Central speller; a principal (Curtis Armstrong) is prone to bend the rules for the sake of an individual; and an automaton (Sean Michael Afable) copes with an abusive father.

The brains of the movie are the relationship between Akeelah—whose neighborhood rallies around her as she rises to local TV fame—and Fishburne's English tutor. The professor teaches Akeelah to think, not merely memorize words. He organizes the material around ideas—using every tool from jump ropes to quotations from various intellectuals—in a systematic approach that's based on understanding the words as concepts, including their linguistic origins. Watching them teach and learn is electrifying and more of it would have made Akeelah and the Bee absolutely flawless.

As Akeelah rises toward competition in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, the picture's focus shifts to a competing speller, and it affords a lesson in how to spell magnanimous, which drains some of the drama from the competition. Yet, no matter how you pick it apart, Doug Atchison's drama is this spring's feel-good movie, with the good feelings coming from rational thoughts, for a change.

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DVD Notes
Extras on the single-disc, snap and slip cased DVD edition of Akeelah and the Bee are easy to grasp. They make an enjoyable addition to this excellent movie.

Seven deleted scenes are shorter than one might expect, which is fine, with one flashing back to the death of Akeelah's dad and another humorously showing a student mistaking the word version: "you mean as in the Virgin Mary?" the kid asks. Other bits include Keke Palmer's ill-advised music video that misspells a word in the song title and two brief, redundant blurbs, one of which takes us inside Akeelah's mind from fear to joy.

A 25-minute making-of feature is the best part of the new material, with writer and director Doug Atchison talking at length about the theme and development of his motion picture, which easily ranks among the year's best. Cast and crew interviewed for this piece talk about Atchison's refusal to compromise his artistic vision for the movie, the difficulty in getting it made, and how legendary actor Sidney Poitier (In the Heat of the Night) was originally designated for the professor role.

At some point, Atchison, whose strong emotional bond with Palmer is evident in the bonus footage, describes Akeelah and the Bee: "It's not a story about learning how to spell. It's about a kid who learns what she's good at and is proud of what she's good at and doesn't hide what she's good at." In other words, it's about striving for one's personal best—which makes this DVD the best type of family entertainment.

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