Akeelah and the Bee is another movie in the tradition of young girl/boy whom has a dream that they won’t back down from and end up changing themselves, family, curmudgeonly mentors, community, and the whole world. In that vein, Akeelah does fairly well in stacking up to Because of Winn Dixie and its ilk. That said it does try to overreach too much in the realms of credibility to make it a truly enjoyable for both kids and adults.
Akeelah is an eleven-year-old student in LA whose father has died and whose mother is trying her best to keep the family going. She has two older brothers (one in the Air Force Academy; the other slouching towards ganghood) and an older sister whom already has had a child out of wedlock. She goes to a rather tough junior high that does have some motivated teachers and principal. We learn quickly that she is pretty smart, especially at spelling, but is also very timid and scared to let others know she is smart for fear of reprisals from fellow classmates. This is an excellent concept and relates well to research on African-American studies on intelligence and social awareness especially in regards to their own peer groups.
However, the film struggles like many other films with children protagonist films in how to make credible their young character’s journey. The filmmakers do a decent job in portraying Akeelah, her family situation, her community situation, and her desires to be both normal and abnormal within that framework while trying at the same time to show her moving beyond that community into the more intelligent suburbs.
Yet the film gives her a magical ability to spell which she inherited from her father and which is nurtured to a degree by Laurence Fishburne’s wise but reticent professor character. In fact she is such a great speller she ends up rivaling the film’s antagonist, an Asian suburban kid with the typical crazy ultra-competitive father. Unfortunately, statistics and real life suggest that the best spellers in the world are the home-school students whom have been dominating the Scripps Spelling Bee contests.
Now, is this any more unlikely than four British schoolchildren leading a rebellion of mythical creatures against a witch in a make believe wardrobe? Of course not, yet the difference between those films and their “credibility” is the role of faith in the films. In the Narnia Chronicles it is made quite clear that the children’s strength comes from God. In Akeelah, it comes from the “community”; that wouldn’t be bad if it showed or at least included the church community, but instead the film has us believe that Akeelah was assisted by the homeless and the gangsta culture (played great by the way by the “Crab-Man” from My Name is Earl, Eddie Steeples) with no church community shown whatsoever (to the best of my recollection).
In fact the only spiritual aspects of the film are when Akeelah talks with a photo of her father, and those were some of my favorite aspects of the film since that is very akin to how Catholics pray to saints in times of troubles for succor.
Akeelah unfortunately is not a strong enough film to exist solely as a film for adults which is a shame, but this is a film that the whole family can watchwhich is something I can write a pun about, but instead simply say is a very good thing.