Akeelah and the Bee
Directed by Doug Atchison
The Tribeca Film Festival premiere of Akeelah and the Bee breaks down standard film festival elitism by not discriminating against basic family-movie appeal. As written and directed by Doug Atchison, Akeelah and the Bee is more genuinely and effectively artful than typical film festival fare. If there is a wide gap between art movies and pop movies, then Akeelah and the Bee is the last best hope for film culture.
Festival programmers who encourage a high/low attitude toward cinema forget to nurture the work that justifies movies as a popular art. Akeelah and the Bee addresses the human condition through a preteen black girl in Los Angeles who advances to a national spelling bee competition in Washington, D.C. Atchison's mostly plain narrative respects universal sentiment, but benignity has become disreputable in contemporary film circles where cynical, pessimistic and abstruse narration are favored. Through its dramatic attention to character and place, psychology and existence, Akeelah and the Bee resurrects a nearly lost idea of what an art-movie really is.
High/low festival dissonance is not about taste but class, and that turns out to be Akeelah and the Bee's real subject. Akeelah (Keke Palmer) lives with her widowed mother (Angela Bassett), an older sister who is an unwed parent, an older brother who has joined the Air Force and a second brother who is drawn to the streets. Her typically distressed Crenshaw district public school diminishes its students' ambitions (they obey the blue and white dress code which is merely a sign of regimentation). But when two faculty members encourage Akeelah's potential for spelling, she awakes to a world outside the hood and to a purpose beyond her isolated playing with words, an intellectual child's lonely outlet.
Like Charles Burnett's estimable Nightjohn (about the salvation that Negro slaves found in learning to read), Akeelah and the Bee recognizes the class distinctions that are erected along lines of literacy. Venturing outside the ghetto to join in spelling study groups, Akeelah travels to Beverly Hills, Woodland Hills, larger houses, backyard swimming pools and quiet neighborhoods, escaping the ominous shudder of inner-city police helicopters. She also meets a multi-ethnic group of competitors: like the smitten young Chicano Javier (J.R. Villarreal) and the proud, bookish Korean Dylan (Sean Michael Afable). Atchison pointedly shows Akeelah on her long bus journey watching a group of suburban white girls riding in a drop-top sports car and listening to hiphop-capturing how cross-culture progress still leaves others behind.
It would be a mistake to underestimate Akeelah's story as a do-gooder homily. Atchison depicts the basics of class mobility that are routinely taken for granted-mostly by people who regard their own literacy and self-conscious preference for film festival art-movies as a private privilege. By putting Akeelah and the Bee into its abundant mix, the Tribeca Film Festival broadens the standard for measuring the significance of art-movie content.
American films that examine the particulars of class interaction and education are no less meaningful than European or Asian films that do not. Atchison's work in Akeelah and the Bee follows the artful tradition of Clarence Brown, Frank Borzage, Martin Ritt, Jonathan Demme and, yes, Spielberg-the American masters of working class experience whose films transcend the socialist sentiments sanctioned in so many foreign films. These directors' concerns are with issues of humane politics: self-hood and community-virtues our film culture has become too hip, too sophisticated, too racist to care about.
But even Godard might approve how Atchison subtly structures this story around the spelling bee words-challenges-that define Akeelah's progression: BRUNNEOUS-for the physical and emotional resemblance between Akeelah, her hardworking mother and brown-eyed brother. SYNECDOCHE-for Akeelah's representation of untold striving Americans. ENFRANCHISEMENT-for the choice made after a drug dealer tells Akeelah about his own dreaming youth. PHILLIOPIETISTIC-for the doctrinaire Afrocentricity exploited by less authentic films. ARGILLACEOUS-for the common bond between all the characters.
Atchison's sophisticated linguistic concept conveys the idea that spelling is communication, a method of putting together ideas and people. (Akeelah masters it instinctively with her own rhythmic mnemonic device.) The compassionate highpoint occurs when Akeelah's mentor, Dr. Larabeee (Laurence Fishburne), forces her to expand her training. The community comes to her rescue in a song sequence (Gamble and Huff's "Wake Up Everybody"). It's like a movie musical's fantasy of goodness; a social vision as pure and hopeful as DeSica's Miracle in Milan.
Film festival culture is always suspicious of what it beholds as emotional manipulation-the stuff of pop-but Atchison articulates a complex, difficult matter. Akeelah's story is the first movie ever made about what the late Harold Cruse called "The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual." Yet, there's a fundamental, universal, life lesson in how this child claims her full humanity and understands her intelligence. As Akeelah spells "pulchritude," Atchison makes profound use of cinematic narration that any real artist would admire-but it will only be appreciated by audiences willing to let go of their art-movie anxieties.