One of the most memorable cinematic motifs of the 90s was director John Singleton's use of omnipresent helicopter noise in his urban nightmare story, Boyz n the Hood. The scenes of gestapo-like stops and searches by burned-out LAPD officers were effective finger-pointing, but it was the ambient noise of low-hovering rotary blades and the occasional swing of a searchlight across the night sky that created a lasting image of South Central Los Angeles as an open-air prison. That this cultural meme has survived long enough to be resurrected in a cheerful nerd-empowerment movie in 2006 must say something about the resonance of film, or the absence of progress in South Central, or both. Akeelah (Keke Palmer), the verbose 11-year old heroine of Akeelah and the Bee, studies and sleeps near a window that is buzzed by traffic overhead, but never lets it deter her from her goal of becoming queen of the school spelling bee. A nice idea, but aside from imparting a respectable message of onward and upward, Akeelah and the Bee has little to offer.
No one goes to a film like this expecting avant-garde storytelling, cutting-edge cinematography, or a last-minute Keyser Soze-like plot reversal, but Doug Atchison's Akeelah is so straitjacketed into formula that it can barely move. The film practically baits us into predicting its moves. Fifteen minutes in, I scribbled the following in my notes: Akeelah's best friend will become put off by her new-found spelling smarts -- will they reconcile before or after she makes it to the big bee? Turned out to be before. With friend in tow, the young heroine hoofs it to D.C. to compete in the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee, that annual happening where the disillusioned copy editors of tomorrow achieve victory or wallow in shame, depending on whether or not, during their flash card drills, they were lucky enough to vacuum up the correct spelling of a certain crater on the moon or the Latin-derived name of a poisonous tree frog that went extinct in 1953. When faced with a word like staphylococci or empennage a Scripps speller can famously forestall disaster by parrying with the judges, asking for sentence usage, etymology, and so on. One kid in this film asks "Can you use the word in a song?"
The question of why Ike and Tina are on hand to do battle in the midst of all this spell-craziness is so intriguing that it almost makes the whole thing worthwhile, but not quite. Laurence Fishburne, wearing a Bill Cosby Picture Page outfit, plays Dr. Larabee, a Scripps Howard winner of yesteryear whose victory brought him a taste for education but not enough of a boost to get out of South Central. When a college chum alerts him to the presence of a little girl in a rundown Crenshaw elementary school who has never missed any words on any spelling test, ever, he decides to become her Mr. Miyagi. Angela Bassett plays Akeelah's mother as a cold, angry chain-smoker who is too busy working and paying bills to get involved in spelling bee nonsense. Bassett, more than anyone, is not served well by the script. She is required to put up an implausibly hostile front to the idea of the spelling bee, even going so far as to have Akeelah dragged off the stage in the middle of an important bee so that she can voice her displeasure. Perfectly willing to trash her daughter's dream, she's only talked back down to earth after an intervention by Dr. Larabee. Come on.
The "hook" of Akeelah and the Bee is, of course, its racial dynamics. The film has a number of racial issues on its plate to deal with, not the least of which is the preponderance of overly-driven Asian children in events like the Scripps bee, often flanked by maniacal, slave-driving parents. (Everyone remembers the image of Akshay Buddiga fainting on stage during the 2004 Scripps bee) The film meets this issue head on in the character of spelling wizard Dylan Chiu, played by Sean Michael, and his father, played with statue-faced intensity by Tzi Ma. After witnessing his son lose at Scrabble to Akeelah during a friendly group practice meet, Mr. Chiu pulls Dylan aside and casually asks him how he ever expects to become a spelling champion if he can't beat a black girl at a board game. Throughout the first half of the film, Akeelah is continually reminded that in order to make it through the regional spelling bees she will have to defeat spellers from -- cue the raised eyebrow -- "Beverly Hills and Santa Monica." In order to accomplish that, she commits herself to Dr. Larabee's rigorous training ritual that includes having her learn Latin and Greek root words and doing bulk memorization only while jumping rope, because memorization is supposedly easier while the mind is keeping time.
Unfortunately, while hanging around Dr. Larabee's house, Akeelah happens upon a jump rope with mysterious initials carved into the handle, thus setting up Dr. Larabee's Big Secret which must be revealed before he can have his Emotional Climax. In this case, an emotional climax so out of character and unnecessary that it seems almost like a make-work program for the actor. Did Laurence Fishburne insist that his character get to have a teary scene? The film is full of these ham-fisted inserts, which are unearned, telegraph themselves from a mile away and underestimate the intelligence of the audience. Getting rid of these easy emotional payoffs and taking at least one unexpected turn with the screenplay would have made Akeelah and the Bee as passable as any other sports film of late, but as is, the film is just too condescending to be given a passing grade. It plays down to the audience it wants to lift up. Dissatisfactory. D-I-S-S-A-T-I-S-F-A-C-T-O-R-Y. Dissatisfactory.