Follow the Buzz

Akeelah and the Bee

Keke Palmer, Angela Bassett, and Laurence Fishburne star in a film written and directed by Doug Atchison.

Reviewed by Gerald Carpenter

Eleven-year-old Akeelah Anderson (Keke Palmer) is a student at Crenshaw Middle School in Los Angeles. When we first meet her, her teacher is handing her a graded spelling test (we can’t see the grade) and asking her how long she studied for the test. “I didn’t study,” she answered.

“See me after class,” said the teacher, shaking her head.

Akeelah turns over the test and sees “100 percent A-plus” written across the top.

Akeelah is a really good speller. Since she is not an idiot savant, her extraordinary ability to spell words is a signal of a generally remarkable intelligence. She has already skipped one grade. But she is only 11, black, and desperately afraid of the social isolation that is generally the inevitable consequence of being exponentially smarter than everybody she knows.

As a result, it takes her teachers, her principal, a UCLA professor (Laurence Fishburne), her entire family, and the whole neighborhood where she lives to persuade her that she needs to compete as a speller  —  that her gift does not belong to her alone. Never mind if the other girls at first mock her as a “brainiac”  —  once she is on television and has become a celebrity, the mockers become cheerleaders.

Keke Palmer is an astonishing actor. Despite powerful performances by Laurence Fishburne as Dr. Larabee and Angela Bassett as her mother, Palmer carries the film and makes it not just believable but inspiring.

Somewhat in the manner of George Clooney, and for a lot longer, Fishburne has been using his clout as an actor to energize and support projects with a positive, credible message. He has been a particularly effective champion of education  —  in fact, “book learning”  —  as the surest route to empowerment. He produced Akeelah and the Bee, and lends his megawatt charisma to it.

Writer/director Doug Atchison, without tricks or flash, has made a wonderful and uplifting motion picture, which both adults and children can enjoy and cheer. It’s quite an achievement.

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