September 09, 2006

Akeelah and the Bee

Akeelah and the Bee is one of the most important films I've ever seen. That word gets thrown around fairly often: i-m-p-o-r-t-a-n-t. Of much or great significance or consequence. How many pretentious costume dramas or political dramas are really important? The things that are truly significant are rarely political. Akeelah and the Bee is about inspiration overcoming desperation. It's about finding in oneself enough value to counter outside adversity. In a popular culture which focuses on sex and violence with increasingly idolatry, it's important to find an urban movie that values dedication, hard work, and individual achievement.
I grew up in a household where my parents always asked nothing more or less than the best that I could do. They gave me the best head start they could and then trusted me to do the best I could from there. Though the film never introduces us to Akeelah's father, I get the very strong impression that he did the same thing for her. Unlike Akeelah, I still have my father today. And unlike Akeelah, I was educated in an upper-middle-class culture where achievement and success are valued and praised — perhaps to excess. Akeelah's education was entrenched in a low-income culture of desperation and disappointment. Any individual's success in a culture like that is threatening, because raising the bar for one means throwing the spotlight on everybody else's failure. It's rude.
Akeelah is languishing in a school that offers her nothing. She is also a sensitive and perceptive child, who appreciates the value in others who probably don't appreciate the value in themselves. Her father was a word enthusiast, and spelling became the last link she had left to him. Too polite and too intimidated to make an anomaly of herself at school, internet Scrabble serves initially as the only outlet for her particular gift.
When first her teacher and then her principal goads her into taking part in the school's first spelling bee, it's therefore no surprise that she wins it. After her victory, the principal's associate Dr. Joshua Larabee starts firing much harder words at her. She goes for quite a while before he tries a zinger on her and she breaks. The room, with her through all her increasingly improbably successes, turns instantly against her and she flees. As she defied the odds, they supported her because her success was their success. But nobody in that room needed to be a part of any more failure. Drained of her own confidence and filled back up with their desperation, she cries out to her principal in the stairwell, betrayed that he would force her to succeed and so allow her to visibly fail. "Mr. Welch, I told you I did not want to do this! They're laughin' at me!" Dr. Larabee's unsympathetic response, delivered authoritatively from a dozen steps above, is full of dire truth: "They laugh because you intimidate them. But if you'd stood your ground you might have earned their respect." If this film is about anything, it's certainly not spelling. It's about the process by which Akeelah grows to live that advice.
By the time she'd matured enough to accept Dr. Larabee's tutelage, she already had dreams of the national spelling bee firmly rooted. She wanted it bad enough to let not family, community, nor herself get in the way. Dr. Larabee teaches her vocabulary and etymology, yes, but he is careful to imbue the words with real meaning. Akeelah expands not only her vocabulary, but also the power of these words and their purpose. Larabee draws from Douglass, DuBois, King, among others. With their essays and their ideas, Larabee aims to counter a lifetime of negative cultural self-image. As the bond between tutor and pupil softens, they each increasingly look to the other — in spite of their own best efforts — to fill the major holes in their lives. Not all tragedies can be blamed on society; Akeelah Anderson and Dr. Joshua Larabee have wounds that are deep, and personal.
Some moments in the beginning are excessively dewy-eyed, and some plot threads get lost along the way that I'd have liked to see resolved. But these complaints are immaterial compared to the momentum and honesty of the journey. When I mentored at a Boston charter school for a college debate class, I was first introduced to the anti-achievement mentality that is at the heart of the crisis in America's inter-city schools. One of the girls in my assigned group was all too eager to help, and was mocked relentlessly by her classmates for it. Another contributed quietly and discreetly, lest the others notice. She was screaming with intelligence and potential in spite of her best efforts to be just another face in the crowd. Keke Palmer's performance as Akeelah started as a dead ringer for this second girl, and progressed to what she could have been. I expected strong performances from Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett; they're marquee names. But Palmer, the eleven-year-old this whole venture is built upon, goes toe-to-toe with both of them. There are innumerable influences, emotions, and expectations swirling around Akeelah, and Palmer internalizes all of them.
Akeelah and the Bee is a reminder that talent is everywhere, and proof that ability and success are both measured in the love that fosters them. It celebrates love — of self, from family, for family, from community, for community. Akeelah isn't extraordinary because she can spell, but because in a world of hatred and fear, she is brave enough to love. ()


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