Akeelah (Keke Palmer) is an eleven-year-old seventh grader at a black middle school in South Los Angeles' Crenshaw district. Although she has a best friend, she feels lonely and isolated at school. Her mother Tanya (Angela Bassett) works as a nurse and has her hands full. One of her sons is in the Air Force and the other is already in trouble on the streets. Akeelah's father was shot while coming home from work and died when she was just six.
At school, her teacher (Dalia Phillips) realizes that Akeelah has a special gift for spelling and encourages her to sign up for the school's spelling bee, a suggestion further encouraged by her principal, Mr. Welch (Curtis Armstrong), who would love to have his poverty-stricken school look good in the district. But Akeelah doesn't want to come across as a "brainiac" to her classmates. And besides, she says, she doesn't even like her school and doesn't see why she should represent it. All this resistance is just masking her low self-esteem. But she does compete and easily wins.
Mr. Welch has invited Dr. Larabee (Laurence Fishburne), a professor from ULCA and a former spelling bee champ, to the event. He is impressed with Akeelah but, despite her wonderful memory, he is not convinced that she has the discipline and creativity it takes to make it to the nationals in Washington D.C. Unimpressed with her street lingo and attitude, he turns her away when she comes to him for coaching. When he finally agrees to work with her, he realizes what she really needs and asks her to read a framed quotation he has on his office wall. We recognized it as Marianne Williamson's from A Return to Love:
"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? . . . We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us."
Writer and director Doug Atchison's screenplay for Akeelah and the Bee won the Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting competition sponsored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It vividly conveys the conflict within this African-American teenager who is given a chance to display her special talent but is frightened to do so. She is alienated from the place where she lives and has bought into the idea that nothing good can come out of a run-down school and a community where people don't care about each other. That's why she's been skipping classes and not applying herself. But she has one thing going for her: the inspiration of her dead father who loved words and always encouraged her.
The relationship that develops between Akeelah and Dr. Larabee, an intellectual with his own private struggle, is emotionally affecting given how much they come to depend on each other. The professor teaches her about word construction, etymologies, and mnemonic tricks. In one of the best scenes, he shows her how small words hold the key to breaking down the winning words used in the final rounds of spelling bees. It's also a pleasure to watch Akeelah develop a friendship with Javier (JR. Villarreal), a Hispanic competitor who develops a crush on her. Although everyone hates Dylan Chiu (Sean Michael Afable), an Asian prodigy with a tyrannical father (Tzi Ma), her heart goes out to this driven boy who lives under incredible pressure.
Although we loved Spellbound, the documentary about the National Spelling Bee, and were moved by last year's Bee Season, Akeelah and the Bee moves out beyond the spelling bee circuit and turns into a film about a whole community. This thematic richness and the exquisite performance by Keke Palmer makes this one of the best films of the year.
One source of Akeelah's initial alienation is that she feels cut off from her community. But when she qualifies for the nationals in Washington and Dr. Larabee cuts her loose, giving her four yellow boxes full of cards with words to learn, she is forced to find help wherever she can — from her family, friends, classmates, and neighbors. In one of the most surprising scenes, a drug dealer shares that he won a contest in grade school for writing a poem; he promises to share it with her if she wins in Washington. Better than that, he and his gang help her prepare.
Long before the final competition, Akeelah has claimed her power and seen it nurtured by her whole community. She has stepped into the spotlight as a brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous child of God. And we, in the audience, feel just like her.