The Oscar Project
I feel like I’ve written this a few times already this year with other films in this challenge, but I’m pretty mad at myself for waiting so long to watch my film this week for the Family-Friendly Movie category. I went through the list from PureWow.com that I posted earlier this week and found that I’d seen the majority of them, but was able to land on Akeelah and the Bee as my pick for this week, and so happy I finally saw it.
Now, a little background before I get too far into this post. Before last year, I don’t think I’d seen Keke Palmer in any films. I may have heard her voice in one of the Ice Age films she was in, but besides that, I didn’t have any reference for her as an actor. That said, since August of last year, I’ve seen four films with her in leading roles. Two of those are her most recent roles as the voice of Izzy Hawthorne in the Pixar film Lightyear and as Emerald “Em” Haywood in Jordan Peele’s Nope. But I would argue that her better (and more impactful) roles were from early in her career, namely Cleaner and this week’s film, Akeelah and the Bee.
When I was picking the film for this week and saw Akeelah and the Bee on that list, I immediately jumped at it, and Palmer’s presence was one of the deciding factors. But the fact that I also got to see Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne reuniting on screen after first appearing together in What’s Love Got to Do With It? sealed the deal.
Now you might think that with names like Fishburne and Bassett in the film, Palmer’s performance would get pushed aside, but just as she held her own in scenes with Jackson in Cleaner, she is equally up to the task of commanding the screen with Bassett, Fishburne, or at times both stars. She is comfortable playing off these adults with tons of experience and the other kids in the film and that’s what I love about seeing her in these early films of her career.
I’ve gone on too long about Palmer without touching on the story, so here it goes. Akeelah (Palmer) is an 11-year-old girl living in Los Angeles. She is incredibly bright and gets teased for being smart. When a teacher suggests she enters the school spelling bee, she is initially resistant, but does enter, winning handily. Dr. Larabee (Fishburne) is at the bee and begins quizzing her on even more difficult words after she wins, which she mainly spells correctly before being tripped up.
As Akeelah moves on to the local and regional spelling bees enroute to the Scripps National Spelling Bee, Larabee agrees to help her study and rise to the challenge. We meet several other contestants along the way that will be both friends and competitors. Akeelah must also push back against her own family including her mother (Bassett) who doesn’t understand why she loves the spelling bee and her brother who appears to be falling in with some unsavory characters in their neighborhood.
This is where the film had to make a choice, and I applaud the direction it went. In one version of this film, Akeelah’s brother becomes a victim of gang or drug related violence and adds yet another thing she must overcome to achieve her goals. But the version we see here shows even he is able to come around, not only helping her study as the national bee approaches, but even being encouraged to do so by his tough guy friends. There is a wonderful montage near the end of the film with Akeelah getting quizzed on words by the local grocer, her school friends, and even her brother and his buddies. The entire neighborhood is invested in the success of this girl in a similar way that people often rally behind superstar athletes that spring out of poverty. The difference here is that intelligence and knowledge are the vehicle, not just strength or athletic prowess.
Now, that’s not to say that films showing someone coming up in sports like this are bad. I’m simply saying that it’s refreshing to see education be the center of an uplift story because we don’t get to see that as much. Of course, there are a few problems with the film, chief of which is the treatment of Akeelah’s main rival in the bee, Dylan (Sean Michael Afable). Dylan is of Asian descent and while the film tries to breakdown racial stereotypes when it comes to African Americans (only able to rise up through sports, not education like we see here) Dylan’s character does fall into some traditional stereotypes related to how he is treated by his father. Dylan’s father comes across as a strict and domineering figure, intent on pushing Dylan to win the spelling bee, devoting every waking hour to this pursuit regardless of whether Dylan really wants it. That said, I appreciate how the end of the film handles this and shows that Dylan isn’t a bad kid. **MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD** In fact, when the competition comes down to the final between the two of them, Akeelah sees how much the competition means to Dylan’s father and purposely misspells a word to give him a chance to win, not just the competition, but his father’s approval. Dylan immediately misspells the same word, telling Akeelah that if he wins, he wants it to be on true merit and they both agree to give their all the rest of the way.
I’m so glad I’ve been on a bit of a run of great films the last few weeks with The Dirty Dozen, Parasite, and now this film. They are all different in their own way, and this was a great palette cleanser after those two previous films with tougher subject matter. I’m also glad I got to see some tremendous work from Bassett and Fishburne who are both wonderful in their roles here.
I'm just a film buff who wants to watch great movies. Where else to find the best, than the list of those nominated by the Academy each year?