Akeelah and the Bee, DVD (2006) Available for Less than $10.00 or probably through a rental program.
For a bit of a change I thought I would provide a movie review. Especially since occasionally I find something that uses the art form to resolve an issue and leaves you feeling that you have somehow grown in the process. Such a movie is this beautifully directed film we picked up by pure happenstance.
I must confess that spelling bees never really inspired me with great thoughts or drew my attention in any particular way. I knew these were intense contests and that those that participated had to work really hard to excel; a rather limp interpretation of a fascinating pursuit.
Akeelah, played by Keke Palmer, is an 11-year-old black girl from South LA attending a school that could probably be described as a “drop-out-factory.” Having lost her father to a drive-by shooting, Akeelah strives to do what she believes he would want her to do: memorize words. Together they had spent hours working on scrabble and she developed the talent in a tribute to him. She does not, however really want to share her ability with anyone else.
Since Akeelah easily aces all of her spelling tests in a class where the students are lucky to even pass, her teacher encourages her to sign up for the school spelling bee. The principal is working on a last ditch effort to draw attention to the school and secure funding for better programs. Although Akeelah is afraid she will lose all of her friends, she finally agrees to try, and easily wins. In the audience that day is the principal’s college friend. After her win, he targets Akeelah with a list of difficult words in rapid fire order to test her ability. She misses only one.
Without giving away too many spoilers, I do want to point out a few ideas developed within the movie. One is the power of the word. The director uses a number of real spelling bee competitors and real competition words to give the movie its realistic tone. He also takes the audience through the process of conquering the word.
While putting her through her training, Dr. Joshua Larabee (the principal’s friend played by Laurence Fishburne) illustrates just what it takes to be a champion speller. It is not just memorizing thousands and thousands of words. It is understanding roots, linguistics and the history of words. Is the word of Latin or Greek origin (which will provide a clue to the spelling), is it used in science, in music, in law? Was its history formed in French or a language not related to the Romantic language family? Does it have homonyms or synonyms? And read, always read, classics, literature, science, biology, whatever one can get your hands on because reading puts that word in context, it gives it life.
The second point really begins during a scene where Akeelah and Dr. Larabee are still trying to measure each other up. Dr. Larabee asks her to recite a piece of poetry from his wall:
Our Greatest Fear —Marianne Williamson
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 and fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world.
There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other
people won’t feel insecure around you.
We were 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.
Throughout the tale, Akeelah learns compassion; at one point willing to give up the top prize to help a competitor. She learns the cost of pursuing a dream, suffering greatly when her mother discovers she has been lying about her school activities. She learns that there are, indeed, many people who will come to your support when you step out and become who you are. Yes, life does not always treat the brave well. It is still important to learn that as you walk this earth you should strive to become all that you can be, and to encourage others to do the same. Such a task can be accomplished without trampling our fellows.
I wrote a poem many years ago on the eve of the first “Gulf War.” Among the lines was this: “When did we forget, that man cannot another man set free?” Each individual must make their own choices and when we do we should strive to do our best, to reach our goals with honor, and to show others that it can be done.
This movie has become one of my favorites because it gave a sense of what sparks the human spirit and it defined what an incredible tool the word can be.