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Movie Review: Akeelah and the Bee

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The forever-compatible Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett team up again in this inspirational story of an inner-city middle school student Akeelah Anderson, played by newcomer Keke Palmer. Once encouraged by her teacher, principal, and older brother, Akeelah decides to try out for the National Spelling Bee.

At first, Akeelah is apprehensive, not only because she’s afraid of failing, but also because she doesn’t want her less capable peers to think of her as a “braniac,” something other kids at school already label her and ridicule her for. She gets A’s on her tests without even studying and her teachers see a lot of potential in her (she even skipped a grade), but she skips school a lot and sometimes doesn’t even do her homework. In her impoverished ghetto neighborhood, being smart doesn’t exactly make you a rock star. Two girls, who are obviously on Akeelah’s case a lot, start bullying her to get her to do their English homework.

Once Akeelah’s principal pretty much blackmails her into entering the school spelling bee as the only alternative to detention for skipping class, they all realize just how incredibly talented she is. She not only wins the bee against her notoriously dimwitted classmates, but when Dr. Larabee (Fishburne), a former UCLA professor who went to college with the principal, throws a few college level words at Akeelah, the room is shocked when Akeelah spits the words right back at him, spelling all of them perfectly in child prodigy fashion — all except the last word.

Akeelah is embarassed and runs off, only to later be convinced by her older brother who tells her that their father (who was shot and killed when Akeelah was six) would want her to do it. Akeelah goes to the regional bee despite her mother’s (Bassett) wishes that she not do the bee in order to focus on her school studies.

Akeelah has many people that help her along the way, including the people in her downtrodden community – from her brothers and sisters (even her other troubled brother who has been causing their mother grief by hanging out with gangbangers) to her friends (including a Spanish boy she meets at the regional bee played by J.R. Villarreal that provides a comic but tender aspect to the film), to random people in the community, eventually even her mother, and of course, Dr. Larabee.

Fishburne and charming child actor Palmer turn out Oscar worthy performances as we see the relationship between these two grow into one that, near the end of the film, provides a scene that will have you sobbing on the movie theater floor. The inherent good nature of Akeelah, and her ultimate concern for doing what is right over winning, is what makes the end of this movie so incredibly satisfying and has you standing up and cheering for not just Akeelah, but the entire community that she got to back her – even inspiring other students to enter spelling bees.

In an age when it seems like every movie that comes out is a remake, sequel, or adaptation, it is refreshing to finally see a film — a family film, mind you — that truly inspires you to be a better person; the best person that you can possibly be. A movie like this is necessary for young people in today’s society — particularly an audience like that of Akeelah’s peers in the film who don’t have many icons or idols other than rappers and drug dealers.

All of the performances in this movie are pitch perfect. Angela Bassett, brilliant as always, turns what could’ve been a flat character into someone three-dimensional and fully fleshed out, bringing life to Akeelah’s still grieving single mother. Laurence Fishburne proves once again why he is one of the best black actors that has ever lived, breathing heart and soul into Dr. Larabee, a character similar to that of the one he played in Searching For Bobby Fischer, but different and distinct enough to be perfect for this film.

The performances that will get the closest to your heart, though, are that of the child actors Keke Palmer and J.R. Villarreal. Palmer infuses truth and genuineness into what other child actors might have left bland and predictable. Her co-star, Villarreal, has one of the most lighthearted, endearing performances I’ve ever seen from such a young actor.

Not since Basset and Fishburne’s What’s Love Got To Do With It? and even earlier, Fishburne’s The Color Purple, have we seen such a well acted and inspirational movie with a black female lead as Akeelah and the Bee. A film like this is the perfect antidote to stereotype-perpetuating movies like Hustle & Flow and Get Rich or Die Trying that negatively portray the black community to mainstream audiences.

This truly is a remarkable film. Take your families, take your children, your parents, friends, teachers – anyone.

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About Chris Evans

  • Very good review! I’ll be seeing this film next weekend. The trailer alone about makes you want to cry. That damned Angela Bassett!

  • Good review. I had pretty much written off the movie before even knowing what it was about because I was so sick of the promotional stuff all over the place in every Starbucks for the past month or so. Now I think I’ll probably go see it.

  • Janie

    Wow. Excellent review. The movie looked okay to me, but now I’ll definitely see it this weekend with my kids.

  • Are you saying that Laurence Fishburne isn’t good enough to be one of the best actors, period, that has ever lived?

  • No, I’m merely pointing out the importance of having such a great actor belong to the already growing group of excellent black actors in film. As much as I would like for it to be a non-issue, the reality is, we have very few that ever get their due. So it must be noted duly.

  • So… because of society’s inequities and because of his particular melanin level, Fishburne has to settle for a limited set of accolades. Makes me want to retch.

  • Essentially, yes. It’s not to say that Fishburne is not in the league as other actors that aren’t black, but because the range of talented black actors that are recognized is so slim, I find the need to cling to the great ones we have. And that indeed (at least for me) entails pointing out the obvious–that he is a great actor–but also is black. You may choose not to.

    When you review Akeelah and the Bee simply leave that part out.

  • How your description of him as being “black” is obvious eludes me, but if it is to you, that can’t be argued. You perceive “black”; I perceive “actor.”

  • NR, you have to admit that the number of actors compared to white actors is extremely disproportionate. Seriously, think of all the white actors who are making millions of dollars per picture. Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Julia Roberts, Cameron Diaz, Tom Cruise, Lindsay Lohan, Johnny Depp, Jennifer Aniston, Ray Romano, Drew Barrymore, Sandra Bullock, Matt Damon, Will Ferrell, Jennifer Garner, Patricia Heaton, Nicole Kidman, Tobey Maguire, Adam Sandler, Naomi Watts…

    The list goes on and on. How many black actors can you think of that make millions of dollars and are in a ton of movies? Maybe four? Denzel, Will Smith, Halle, Lawrence (does he even make millions)?

    The list is so disproportionate it’s not funny.

    And I won’t even begin to rant about the disproportionate amount of Hispanic actors to our population!

  • I personally don’t feel that it makes sense to ignore Laurence’s status as a “black actor”, in fact I feel it makes more sense to embrace it. Especially because many of the films he does (like this one and the other two I mention in the article) deal with the very issue of race.

    It is with great pride that I call Laurence a “black actor”. Would I call Brad Pitt a “white actor”, no I wouldn’t. But that’s because socially, there is no need to.

  • Honestly, I think it’s ridiculous you’re getting caught up in something so menial. It’s one sentence out of an entire review that you’re focusing on. Can’t you just get over it and go see the movie?

  • Already saw it, Mr. Evans. Feel-good movie of the year. Fine performances by fine actors. That has nothing to do with my criticism, which stands.

    Menial? (Are you sure that’s the word you wanted? Perhaps “minor?” Or “minuscule?” Or that seeing human beings as human beings is of “minimal” importance, in your view? Or maybe that Fishburne, cursed as he is to be a “black” actor in your eyes, must forego his right to be judged alongside actors who don’t share the same melanin enhancement, a diminishment you see as an issue that is “microscopic” in size?)

    Whatever. Perceive as you will. Once you hit “publish,” however, your perception isn’t the only one that gets airing.

    You want me to ignore that one sentence, one I find completely offensive, and focus on the rest of the piece. Understand this: That one sentence shows an insistence to see Fishburne as little more than “black” (actually brown; take a look sometime) skin wrapped around a little talent (enough so that we can compare him to Denzel, but not to Brad Pitt or Pauly Shore). As such, it is so vile it renders the rest of the article useless. My opinion, offered respectfully, if bluntly.

    “Get over it.” Interesting, though unsurprising, turn of phrase. If I had a nickel for every time…

  • I must admit, NR, it’s cute that you ignored my comment.

    Scared? 😉

  • Scared? Of what? Uninterested would be a more honest and accurate description. And what an accusation to level at a total stranger!

    Mr./Ms. Casey, it is absolutely true that pigmentational discrimination (among other evils) thrives in Hollywood and needs to die a most undignified death. I saw no purpose to justify wasting my time on a compulsory reply to your statement of the obvious – primarily because your point IS so obvious. Additionally, what you wrote has no bearing on my point. Deeming that non-pink-colored thespians must accept and be limited to a specific and restricted list of accolades or points of consideration (i.e. Fishburne and those who share that genetic thing can not be called great actors, only great “ENTER SOCIETAL CATEGORIZATION IN ADJECTIVAL FORM” actors) serve not to compliment the performer and his work in some objective fashion, but to offer “colored only” kudos so as to keep the spotlight on the amount of melanin existing within that actor’s sytem. People are going to make assumptions or prejudgments about his ethnicity just by looking at him – why can’t a reviewer’s focus by the quality of his work apart from anything else? Need to bring up the Negro thing? There are ways to insert it without withholding full respect from the actor.

    Larry Fishburne is a great actor. Period. He and his talent deserve better to be limited, to be a prisoner under the mainstream-imposed glass ceiling that limits the types of praise actors (in most cases, erroneously) lumped into the “black” box are allowed to receive.

    I think of Morgan Freeman, who spoke out against “Black” History Month… I think of Denzel Washington, who upon winning his best-actor statue for Training Day insisted to press insistent upon pushing the melanin angle that he was amd wanted to be seen as an ACTOR, period. (under the author’s theory, we would have to say to Messrs. Freeman and Washington, “No. We say you are ‘black’ actors and MUST be presented only in that light.” How pleased would you be to hear something like that, Mr./Ms. Casey? Mr. Evans? How would you endure hearing – you can only be one of the best “ENTER SOCIETAL CATEGORIZATION IN ADJECTIVAL FORM” actors, not one of the best actors overall. Can’t you see how sick that is? How unjust?

    And frankly, I don’t see how reminding a person of their skin color every five minutes helps *end* pigmentational discrimination.

  • And if you remember, Mr. Freeman was highly criticized for that remark. Like I said, and this’ll be my last comment on this particular subject because I kind of feel like I’m repeating myself and just beating a dead horse, there’s no denying there is a divide between black and white actors in Hollywood–as much as I–a young black man who has hopes of someday possibly pursuing acting–would like it to be reality that we’re all equal in everyone’s eyes, the reality is it isn’t true. Therefore, I have certain black actors (Denzel, Laurence, Morgan, Jeffrey Wright, Jamie Foxx, Sidney, Angela Bassett, Alfre Woodard, and others) that I grab onto as idols and heroes and heroines–because of their perseverance, their determination, and their courage.

    I am not idealistic, NR. I am realistic. I refuse to believe that in our society (as far as we HAVE come) race is nothing but (as you call it)pigmentation.

    So for this review, and for any other review I see fit, I will continue to refer to Laurence Fishburne and whoever else I please–as a “black actor”

    Just as I will continue to refer to Michael Cunningham, Tony Kushner, and David Sedaris as “gay writers”. There aren’t many. And the ones that do exist don’t necessarily get the recognition they deserve.

    Allow me to have the few heroes people like me can muster up in this mainstream media saturated with straight white men.

  • No one said you couldn’t Just giving voice to another point of view. And so what if Morgan Freeman was criticized? Does that necessarily mean those who griped at what he said – a statement many found refreshing, btw – are wrong? No. Even if it was most of the critics: Majority is no proof of correctness.

    And just as you have the right to say what you will, *so do the rest of us* – particularly when you air your views publicly. Not all of us believe in the concept of “race.” Racism, the societal plague, does exist – no doubt about that – but part of that hideousness, I believe FERVENTLY, is telling Larry Fishburne that however good he is, because of genetics, he can never simple be a great actor. You don’t see how sick that is? Morgan Freeman does. Because certain small-minded views keep him from speaking his piece? No one is allowed to question the conventional stupidity “wisdom?”

    Whatever. You choose to restrict others using vile mainstream society’s boundaries? That’s sad, but that’s your right, which I will defend vigorously whenever necessary. And I will speak up to counter it whenever it appears in the interest of allowing people to see and consider points of view that exist beyond the mainstream’s constricting comfort zone and those who go along to get along with the mainstream (they get the lion’s share of my… we’ll say concern).

  • Dawn

    My six-year old is going with her grandpa to see this as we speak. I look forward to her review as well.

    Nice job!

  • Laurence Fishburne is a great actor and also a great black actor. This is clearly the meaning Chris intended. Yet NR Davis insists on thinking Chris must have meant Fishburne is a great actor but only in comparison to other black actors. This despite multiple explanations where Chris makes it clear he believes the exact opposite. Why insist the only possible interpretation is the “but only” reading, and deny any possibility of the “and also” meaning?

    Remembering that a great actor is also black is not necessarily a way to limit, diminish, or insult his greatness. In many ways his being black magnifies his accomplishments as an actor, simply because our society makes it much harder for black people to become actors in the first place, and Hollywood gives far less monetary encouragement to black actors than to those who happen to be white. Remembering both facts about him is also a potential source of pride and inspiration for other black people, helping them believe in their own capacity to achieve greatness despite the obstacles they face. Such positive connotations of the word black are obviously the ones Chris intended, as he makes clear in his comments over and over again.

    If I weren’t already familiar with NR Davis’ mode of operation, from numerous prior observations of self-hating behavior patterns, the refusal to understand this very clear meaning would be quite mysterious to me. As it is I can only commend Chris for realizing it is time to move on and leave this argument unresolved. No force on earth will ever liberate NR Davis from this determination to misread everything in the most negative light possible, unless and until NR Davis decides to make that change independently of what anyone else thinks.

    Meanwhile, thanks to Chris’ excellent review that started this whole thing, I look forward to seeing Akeelah and the Bee sometime soon. I’m sure to enjoy the skilled performances by several great actors who also happen to be black.

  • Oh my God, thank you Victor.

    Maybe now NR will understand what I meant.

    Doubt it, though.

  • After reading this review, I think I will go see this movie. From the previews, it looked like just another “poor kid from the ghetto overcomes hardships” in the sappiest way possible. But, Chris, you wrote a great review, so I’ll give the movie a shot…..even if it is starring a bunch of “black” actors. 😉

    In NR’s defense however (even though she’ll say she doesn’t need defending) there does seem to be a movement of educated Black people who wish to be seen as simply “educated people”, regardless of skin color. I get it, but the WAY in which many of these people (educated minorities who wish to not be identified simply by their minority status) proclaim their opinions can seem off-putting, arrogant, sometimes self-loathing, and self-righteous.

    But Chris, I understand your perspective too. Laurence Fishburne (remember when he was just Larry?) is great actor, and great black man, therefore, a great black actor…and there’s no shame in that. So, as black people, we often want to CLAIM our heroes……it’s a feeling of pride.

    Either way, it’s not a good argument. Because no matter how or what we think, we will always have differences and subtleties in our skin pigmentation, people will try to keep some of us down because of it, and other people will choose to celebrate those differences. And no matter what, SOMEONE is going to get offended.