In celebration of Black History Month, we’re making daily movie recommendations, presented in chronological order of the films’ stories.
Stay tuned to Noovie every day as we highlight an original, landmark film worth revisiting or discovering for the first time.
February 19 – Akeelah and the Bee (2006)
While writer-director Doug Atchison had been planning to make his project “Akeelah and the Bee” for years, dating back to the early ‘90s, it was only after the success of the 2002 documentary “Spellbound” that the film gained extra funding, and went into production with Lionsgate Films as a backer in 2004.
The film is a classic sports underdog tale of 11-year-old Akeelah Anderson (played with gusto by newcomer Keke Palmer), who comes from an underprivileged background and an inner-city Los Angeles school where her peers don’t usually shine to brainiacs who know their a-b-c’s. Akeelah is a natural talent and a highly intelligent and empathetic individual.
But it’s only through the course of her experiences in the film that she learns to appreciate, develop and use her gifts for hers and others’ well-being.
Raised by her widowed mother Tanya (Angela Bassett) and her older siblings, Akeelah is a spelling fan who’s a bit reluctant to show what she can do. Coaxed into entering the Crenshaw Schoolwide Spelling Bee by her principal, Mr. Welch (Curtis Armstrong), Akeelah wins and is later tested by a visiting English professor, Dr. Larabee (Laurence Fishburne).
He deems her good enough to compete in the National Spelling Bee. Akeelah, though, still isn’t sure what she should do, and doesn’t receive encouragement at home, where her mom is only concerned that she focus solely on her schoolwork. In the meantime, she meets two fellow students who will have an impact on her life: Javier Mendez, a 12-year-old Mexican American boy who likes her; and Dylan Chiu, a Chinese American boy whose father thinks of Akeelah only as a competitor that his son needs to beat.
Akeelah seeks out Dr. Larabee as a coach, but he has his own personal challenges, having recently lost his daughter. All the circumstances lead up to the final National Spelling Bee in Washington, DC, where situations converge in a way where Akeelah, supported by her community, family and friends, will make an important decision in competition that will reveal both her intelligence and her spirit.
Veteran actors Fishburne and Bassett, and the rest of the supporting cast, are all fine, but young Palmer’s embodiment of the truly unique Akeelah leaves a lasting impression. The story, while formulaic in ways familiar to all underdog sports tales, has at its center an original heroine, and it's her final acts of compassion and understanding that are the real triumph.
The film won a Best Actress award for Palmer at the Black Reel Awards, and was named by the National Board of Review as one of the 10 best independent films of 2006.
Where to Watch
Akeelah and the Bee
Children / 2006 / PG
Akeelah, an 11-year-old girl living in South Los Angeles, discovers she has a talent for spelling, which she hopes will take her to the National Spelling Bee. Despite her mother's objections, Akeelah doesn't give up on her goal. She finds help in the form of a mysterious teacher, and along with overwhelming support from her community, Akeelah might just have what it takes to make her dream come true.