Making the Grades
Akeelah Anderson (Keke Palmer) has an unusual gift. Despite skipping classes and neglecting homework, she has an incredible ability to spell words. Encouraged by her teacher (Dalia Phillips) and arm-twisted by her principal (Curtis Armstrong), the eleven-year-old enters and wins her East Los Angeles school's first spelling bee. Not only does that qualify her for an opportunity to participate in a citywide competition and possibly earn a spot at the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee, it also attracts the attention of Dr. Joshua Larabee (Laurence Fishburne).
A former university professor well acquainted with the spelling bee circuit, Dr. Larabee agrees to coach the young prot0xE9g0xE9e on two conditions; she must stick to a strict schedule and adjust her attitude.
But Akeelah isn't sure she wants to accept his offer. Already teased by her peers for being a "brainiac," the African-American girl feels out of her league in an arena filled with wealthy and predominately white kids. As well, she has no support from home where her widowed mother (Angela Bassett) is overwhelmed by a fulltime job of making ends meet and dealing with wayward family members. However, when the choice comes down to training or attending summer school, Akeelah realizes she has been bitten by the competitive bug and decides to forge her mom's signature on the required permission form.
While a heart-warming movie about an under-privileged character discovering her inner potential and going on to great achievements may sound cliche there are elements about this script that are truly unique. These are especially evident in the way the film depicts the competitors. Instead of painting them as the enemy, the various participants develop friendship and empathy for one another. For instance, when Akeelah nervously attends her first real meet (her fears are creatively conveyed by clever camera work), her anxiety is set to rest by a kind gesture from a boy named Javier (J.R. Villarreal). And although the most promising candidate, Dylan Chiu (Sean Michael), seems determined to win at any cost, deeper motivations and ethics are revealed as the story unfolds.
As expected, Akeelah transforms from a shrinking violet into a cool-as-a-cucumber contestant under the tutelage of the professor. Yet she learns more than just memorization techniques from the brilliant educator who opens her eyes to the building blocks of language and how words can be used to shape the world. Along the way he helps her catch a vision of who she can become and teaches her that even those with talent still have to work hard if they want to succeed.
With the exception of a few content concerns (namely some mild to moderate profanities scattered throughout the dialogue, allusions to the harsher realities of life in the 'hood and the struggles of a single parent family), Akeelah and the Bee flowers with positive messages. As this underdog acquires the confidence to become her best self, comes to terms with the things she doesn't have, and gains an appreciation for the things she does have, she also discovers she has a lot to give to those around her. Her example may spell similar successes within young viewers who see this wonderful movie.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about Akeelah and the Bee.
How do you feel about the quote Dr. Larabee shared with Akeelah that states: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” What do you think the professor was hoping Akeelah would learn from this piece of wisdom? Did this insight help the young girl unlock the potential within her? As she begins to work hard, how does her success affect herself, her family, her community and her teachers?
How did Javier feel about participating in the spelling bee? What were Dylan’s motivations? How did their attitudes affect Akeelah? Does the spirit of competition always need to be about one winner and many losers? What did Dylan teach Akeelah about finding the satisfaction of coming in first?