It’s “Inspirational” Hokum but, Y’Know, It Kinda Works
Akeelah and the Bee / Jeremy C. Fox
Film Reviews | May 15, 2006 | Comments ()
In Akeelah and the Bee, Akeelah Anderson (Keke Palmer from Madea’s Family Reunion) is an 11-year-old student at a South Los Angeles middle school, where she has always felt that she didn’t fit in, where her classwork is unchallenging and other girls bully her for making As. With the school’s test scores declining, the principal, Mr. Welch (Curtis Armstrong), seizes on the idea of a champion speller as a way to bring the school good PR. He pressures Akeelah to compete by threatening to send her to detention for her many absences, and he brings in his old friend Dr. Joshua Larabee (Laurence Fishburne), a former competitor at the national bee himself, to help coach her to victory. As Akeelah progresses from school to district to regional bees, she has to deal with turmoil within her family, Larabee’s tetchiness, and her own ambivalence about her gift.
Every genre of film is defined at least in part by its cliches. The western has its dusty cow-towns whose lone heroes stand up against the bad men; the film noir has its dark alleys, femmes fatales, and cynical, hard-bitten loners; the romantic comedy has its meet-cutes and the unlikely complications that keep the lovers apart until the final scenes. The genre of Akeelah and the Bee doesn’t have a catchy name — we might call it the “spiritual uplift” or the “heroic little guy” genre — but it, too, has a standard set of characters and situations that keep it within the realm of predictable formulas: There’s the reluctant hero — the David who must take on his or her personal Goliath; the even more reluctant mentor, always hiding a painful past; the obstacles that prevent our hero from easily attaining the goal.
All films contain elements of audience manipulation, but this particular genre often gets a bad rap from critics (though it may delight audiences) due to the obviousness of its contrivances. We’re willing, even eager, to be coaxed into feeling certain emotions when we go to the theater, but outright pandering makes us feel insulted, perhaps even more so when it’s really successful. When filmmakers set out to make a genre picture, the important question is one of balance: Do the rote, predictable aspects of the screenplay outweigh those that are original and unexpected? Akeelah and the Bee cuts it pretty close. Its writer/director, Doug Atchison (whose only previous feature was The Pornographer, a very different kind of film) is hardly an original talent, but he knows a thing or two about working the audience. He’s made a pretty effective piece of manipulation, though much of his script does little more than run through the expected genre tropes. Larabee is the reluctant mentor, Akeelah is the reluctant hero taking on kids with more experience and better resources and, as the obligatory obstacles to her success, there’s her distracted, unsupportive mother (Angela Bassett, intense as always); her loud, uncouth sister Kiana (Erica Hubbard) who is an unwed mother still living at home; her wannabe-gangsta brother Terrence (Julito McCullum); and the anti-education attitudes and general lack of hope or ambition in her entire community. Elements of the story are pretty far-fetched — would one little girl’s attempts to compete in the national spelling bee really unite that community? Would a local gangsta (the terrific Eddie Steeples from “My Name is Earl”) really relate to Akeelah’s efforts because he had once won a junior-high poetry contest and thus devote time to helping her study when that time would more profitably be spent dealing drugs or pimping whores?
Atchison presents a world in which no one is really nasty or selfish, just misguided. The closest the film comes to a villain is the father of one of Akeelah’s competitors, a man who lives vicariously through his son’s successes because “he never won anything in his life.” If you can buy Atchison’s worldview, you’ll probably love Akeelah, but surrending disbelief will be difficult work if your soul harbors the slightest hint of cynicism. It makes perfect sense when we see Larabee working to connect Akeelah’s growing vocabulary with social and scholarly meaning, having her read works by Martin Luther King and W.E.B. DuBois but, when he pulls out his big gun, inspirationally speaking, and it turns out to be an aphorism from Marianne Williamson’s A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles,” the logic train goes right off the rails. This man is presented the former chair of the UCLA English department, and he’s clearly knowledgeable about the richness of African-American literature, yet the most inspirational passage he can offer Akeelah — one he likes so much he had it calligraphed and framed on the wall of his study — is a New-Agey exhortation to “let our own light shine?”
I suspect that it’s this sort of baloney in the screenplay that led to Fishburne’s strangely diffident performance. Fishburne is clearly not here just to collect a paycheck — he served as one of the film’s producers in addition to playing the second lead — yet his portrayal of Larabee feels detached and constricted. He never quite finds the right tone for the character, though I’m not sure what tone would work for a character so shallowly and inconsistently written. In the lead role, Palmer fares far better. She has a smart, no-nonsense quality that helps to cut through the treacle (perhaps it helps to be 11 years old when you’re working with this sort of material), and her low-key intensity makes it easy to believe her as Angela Bassett’s daughter, a pretty remarkable accomplishment in itself. With the help of Palmer and J.R. Villarreal, who plays Javier Mendez, a speller who is friend, cheerleader, and tentative love interest to Akeelah, Atchison manages to balance the hokiness of his screenplay with a sweet ingenuousness and a few real surprises. He diverges from our expectations just often enough to keep the story interesting in spite of the many scenes that are completely predictable.
Sometimes a story doesn’t have to be realistic or even fully succeed at overcoming disbelief in order to work; as long as we care enough about the characters, we’re willing to overlook aspects of the story that don’t quite jell. The thing is, the stuff that works here would still work just as well without all those cliches; they add nothing to the story — they merely distract from its emotional impact. Atchison has made a sweet, not-dumb film that has a number of good things to say about the thirst for achievement; it’s just too bad he didn’t have the guts to make one that didn’t contain so many things we’ve seen before.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
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