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At The Movies: Akeelah Rises Up:

Sasha Stone

Mirror Contributing Writer

Akeelah and the Bee

***1/2

Akeelah and the Bee is a hard movie to hate. The script by Doug Atchison, who also directed, is mostly predictable, utterly sentimental and manipulative as a Mastercard commercial. But you’d have to be one cold turkey to hate it.

The first movie backed by the coffee franchise Starbucks, Akeelah and the Bee is the kind of film you want to rush out and force every kid you know to see. Maybe some adults could benefit as well but, really, this is a film for every kid who dares to dream, or who has, as the delightful Barack Obama once said, the “audacity of hope.”

Because they’re smart over there at Starbucks, Akeelah comes, thankfully, product-placement free. There isn’t a gang-banger hanging around drinking a mocha and the national spelling bee doesn’t have a Starbucks symbol anywhere. That would have made everyone groan. And it certainly wouldn’t have helped them sell their overpriced coffee either.

A talented young speller, Akeelah (Keke Palmer) goes to the armpit of LAUSD known as Crenshaw Middle School. She’s falling behind on her studies because students aren’t encouraged to learn there so much as they are conditioned to believe they are stupid and that their only hope of escape is teen pregnancy or drug dealing. It’s a cliché, to be sure.

Akeelah can do one thing very well. She is the only student from the school who has ever won a district spelling bee or maybe even competed in one. With the help of strict teacher Dr. Larabee (Lawrence Fishburne), Akeelah is coached. She must study in secret as her hard-working single mother (Angela Bassett) is too busy keeping her other child out of jail and working full time to pay attention to Akeelah’s surprise gift.

Akeelah’s father was killed earlier in her life, yet he is the one who motivates her to continue, despite being teased by her classmates, yelled at by her mother and marginalized by her friends. She presses on because somewhere inside she has the audacity of hope.

Dr. Larabee teaches her more than just spelling; he teaches her that anybody can be a robot and parrot back the words. It’s much harder to understand the words and language. Naturally, Akeelah makes it all the way to the national spelling bee. You can almost guess what happens next but it probably won’t happen the way you expect it will.

This isn’t a film that avoids predictability. You know essentially what the big payoff is going to be and it doesn’t disappoint. Some films are designed that way, to move you beyond all comprehension.

It may be a feel-good movie, and there’s no doubt it’s cornball. But it is more than that. It is a film about a little black girl who can spell. You’d be surprised at how groundbreaking that simple idea is in some parts of this very big and very separate city. It is Akeelah’s fear of the white world that holds her back just enough to make her doubt herself. And it is her own community, the one the white world tries to ignore, that helps her find her way.

What is remarkable about Akeelah and the Bee isn’t so much that the girl soars. She does do that. But it is how she recognizes and appreciates the help of everyone around her – people she would never expect to care about the spelling bee.

The other reason the film works is young Ms. Palmer. She is able to play both Akeelahs: The one who has to “talk black” with all of her defenses up to fit in and the one who is ambitious, compassionate and vulnerable. Without an actress that good the part could collapse under the sentimentality of the screenplay.

If Akeelah and the Bee has a failing, it’s that it felt the need to make everything neatly tied up in the end. Every character must have a happy ending and closure because, gosh, it’s a wonderful life after all. This hideous world has more horrors in store for Akeelah and company that the film has politely put away for the time being.

Either way, there is no better film to see right now and the fact that it was made in the first place ought to give us all hope that there are still good people out there who give a damn.

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