Akeelah Anderson (Kete Palmer) is an 11 year-old seventh grader with the amazing ability to spell almost every word she hears. She doesn’t know the etymologies or even the meanings of all the words at first, but has the power to absorb and recall a word once she hears or sees it. Her father died when she was very young and her mother (Angela Bassett) struggles to keep her family together.
She goes to Crenshaw Middle School in South Los Angeles, an area known for gangs and racial unrest. When her principal Mr. Welsh (Curtis Armstrong) suggests that she could win the district spelling bee and thus represent her school well, she says, “Why should I stand up for a school that doesn’t even have doors for the toilet stalls?” With the help of a reclusive UCLA professor, Mr. Larabee (Lawrence Fishburn) who coaches her over many months, Aleelah wins the district bee, barely makes the cut for the Southern California bee, but becomes a finalist for the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C.
You’ll just have to see the film if you want to know how the results. And I recommend this film with all my heart.
Spelling is treated as a sport in the U.S. according to the film (it’s shown on ESPN), but no other country has such competitions. The BBC tried to launch an interest through a television program in 2004, but I couldn’t find any follow up to this information. I thought the 2002 documentary Spellbound about a few kids from different geographic places and social backgrounds in the United States who become finalists in the national spelling bee competition was wonderful. I didn’t see Bee Season (2005); it garnered terrible reviews and was in and out of theaters in the blink of an eye, but I think I might like to see it just the same.
What’s so engaging about Akeelah and the Bee is the charm of its unsophisticated young actress Kete Palmer and the other young actors. Set in South Los Angeles we can experience a little of the social-cultural context that Akeelah has to struggle with just enough to let us know how hard life is in the ghetto. We also witness racial diversity as well as bias, the immigrant experience, parent-child relationships, and 50,000 coaches who can help us learn if we let them. The film also focuses our attention once again on “sports dads” or parents who live their successes and failures vicariously through their children, and the negativity this produces all around.
Lawrence Fishburn as Akeelah’s spelling coach Professor LaraBEE let’s us see that spelling bees are about life, not about just letters and the small words that make bigger words. Professor Larabee is brought in to the school by Mr. Welsh to observe and identify any of the students with academic potential. Larabee witnesses Akeelah’s performance at the school bee that day, and he knows she is special. Over the months that he coaches her we find out that spelling for him is about life’s burdens and triumphs as well.
Personally, I am not a good speller. None of my seven siblings are good spellers. We come by this flaw naturally – our Mom was a terrible speller but she had beautiful penmanship. (Now, thanks to computers, none of us can even claim this talent or skill, depending on how you look at it. Literally. What’s worse is when we forget to use the spell check feature, a personal lapse.) I think this is why I am so fascinated by children who can spell - this film is about so many kinds of “smarts”!
Dr. Howard Gardner developed a theory of “multiple intelligences” in the mid-1980’s. And though disputed by some, the theory has gained popularity in the field of educational methodology; once a teacher can identify how a child is smart he or she can engage that intelligence for both book learning and life. I saw every one of Gardner’s “eight kinds of smart” in Akeelah and the Bee, and this is why I think every teacher and kid would find something to treasure in Akeelah and the Bee.
Multiple Intelligences according to Gardner:
Linguistic intelligence - is about words; verbal abilities; the love for words; the strength of words. Spelling is made of words, and smallwords make big ones as Larabee demonstrates visually to Akeelah. Larabee also uses the power of Nelson Mandela’s words to help Akeelah understand her fears and her power as a human person.
Logical/mathematical intelligence – is about numbers and reasoning. If there’s one thing Akeelah learns it’s about reasoning in the film.
Spatial intelligence - is about visual smarts or being able “to picture” something. Akeelah has to use a map to get from South Los Angeles to the upper middle class Woodland Hills to visit Javier (J.R. Villarreal) a friend she makes at the district bee. She also has to imagine how she learned a word to be able to spell it.
Bodily-Kinesthetic intelligence – This is about the use of the body to learn. We see Akeela tapping her hand on her leg from the beginning of the film but it is Larabee who realizes it is a mnemonic, that is, Akeelah’s way of associating one thing with anotherto remember.
Musical – As it says, this intelligence is about learning through music. When Akeelah has a conversation with her brother’s gang banger, she finds out he once wrote a poem. When her brother scoffs at the idea of this cool, tough guy writing a poem, he says, “Where do you think rap comes from?”
Interpersonal – This intelligence is about being smart about people. Certainly Larabee is; he can see what others cannot. But Akeelah is as well, and because she connects what she learns from and about people, she is able to project meaning into and for the community, not just herself.
Intrapersonal – This form of intelligence is about self, that is, the ability to have personal insight; to look within, to reflect, to connect life experience and learning. I am reminded here of something John Henry Cardinal Newman once wrote about the educated person: one who is able to learn something in one area and integrate it, that is, apply it across the entire curriculum of the university and life. Although Akeelah is young, she learns this way, as do most of the key characters in the film.
Naturalist – Learning from nature, or throughthe natural world about us is a true gift. Larabee plants flowers; he tends a garden. It is a metaphor for his life as well as a way to expiate his grief. Nature can heal all of us.
Akeelah and the Bee may not win an Academy Award; it is predictable; the acting is sometimes amateur; the dramatic arc seems too simple to work. But these are minor elements. I hope this film will be a sleeper hit, the same way Whale Rider was a few years ago. We have too few young female heroines in our movies.
This film has a charm that reaches deep inside of you and makes you want to stand up and cheer for these kids who have Scrabble tournaments at birthday parties. Now that was funny. Maybe Gardner should add humor to his list of multiple intelligences. If you haven’t yet seen Akeelah and the Bee: bee smart and see it.
Attributed to Nelson Mandela:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?” Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine as children do. We are born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.