Thursday, 17 August 2006

Akeelah and the Bee (2006)

Laurence Fishburne is clearly eyeing Mr Garrison's role in South Park

I loved the 2002 Oscar-nominated documentary Spellbound, which introduced the sport of spelling bees to a much wider audience than English teachers and their students in the high school spelling club. Jeffrey Blitz had good sense to focus on eight ordinary young competitors from the real world: some are geeks and seen as outsiders by their peers, others struggle with teenage parenthood; some are simply precocious, others have been hothoused by yuppie parents, and still others come from much more humble backgrounds. These children come from everywhere; it seems many are immigrants or children of immigrants. Aside from their parents and coaches, most of these kids take the competition with their heads screwed on, and simply shrug, grin and move on if they get a word wrong and are eliminated. As a sports drama featuring little tykes saying the darnest things, Spellbound works because there are very little dramatics despite the potential for drama.

Yet the success of Spellbound has led to the development of an entire genre of movies, coming under the label of "spellingbeekidsploitation". Last year, we had Richard Gere and Flora Cross in Bee Season. Now, we have Laurence Fishburne and Keke Palmer in Akeelah and the Bee. Here, the director has chosen to create an inspiring film, one of those that are designed to get the heartstrings of the audience in a way that only a film about young children doing their best at sports can. In other words, a dramatic and sentimental (thank goodness it’s not based on any real life story!) account that follows the journey an ordinary girl must take to reach the finals of the National Spelling Bee contest.

Just to let you know, the film does succeed at tugging heartstrings, because it is a filmed as a sports film, albeit with an academic and cerebral sport – and sports films with kids, films about students struggling to doing well in academic pursuits are almost impossible to fail at tugging at heartstrings. The only questions are academic: whether the director was overly and overtly manipulative of the audience.

We understand that there are several rules to follow if you intend to make a sports film. Like having a wise old and cranky Karate Kid style mentor. That would be Laurence Fishburne for this movie. You know, the actor who usually plays the huge black man who looks capable of tearing off your head, whether he’s on the side of good or evil. How much did Atchison have to twist to turn Laurence Fishburne into Dr Larabee, a Chicken Soup for Nelson Mandela quoting professor at UCLA? Turns out Fishburne has to don a pink cardigan sweater, act like a prissy schoolmarm, has a gardening hobby like a grandmother, and come in close proximity to a box of puppets and dolls while coaching Akeelah (Keke Palmer) on spelling techniques. There goes a symbol of African American male virility! Doug Atchison will sacrifice anything just to pull your heartstrings! Not only that, but Dr Larabee is given a tragic past that only bears on the film for a scene that lasts shorter than 2 minutes, and only serves to pile on the heart balm.

This excessive gratuitousness is grating, especially when you consider that Laurence Fishburne does succeed in the rest of the Karate Kid training sequences with Keke Palmer.

The key point in the standard student sports film genre is that the protagonist often has to struggle against their environments. Since Akeelah is African American, it means that she lives in a bad neighbourhood, her brother is a gang member wannabe, and her mum is a single mum struggling to keep everything going, and is firmly opposed to her daughter wasting time on frivolous extracurricular activities like spelling bee contests. And of course, Akeelah goes to a school where being too clever is a death sentence and an invitation for school bullying.

So far, so good? But Atchison veers wildly off when he ditches the emotional and social realism halfway in the movie and begins to shoot with rose-tinted glasses, dropping issues developing in the background. I am of course talking about the problem of the African American race here. The student community’s suspicion of Akeelah isn’t so much a rejection of success than a symptom of reverse racism: Akeelah, by being too good at her studies and winning regional spelling bees, is too white for them. Her mother (Angela Bassett) forbids her from travelling upstate to a posh school not because it is in the suburbs, but because it is really in a white neighbourhood, populated by token minorities like rich Hispanics and overachieving Chinese. It smacks of intellectual dishonesty that Atchison refuses to acknowledge the real causes of the symptoms in his characters, and then proceeds to mow them down as if they never existed. Don’t ask me how Akeelah wins the approval of her classmates and mother – even I can’t figure out a satisfactory answer.

The bad neighbourhood angle turns ever so suddenly into Sesame Street meets Hillary Clinton’s "It Takes A Village" when Akeelah’s coach persuades her to seek the coaching of her own community. How is it that the friendly local gangster in his pimpmobile is so kind as to offer a poem to the girl, and insist that her wannabe gangster brother spend time with her spelling bee preparation? It boggles the mind. What of the friendly Korean grocery store owner who Akeelah also hangs out with? Has he forgotten the rift between Koreans and African Americans in the US, caused by black gangsters murdering Korean store owners in the early 1990s? After the fantastic sequences of the entire neighbourhood chipping in to coach Akeelah, I was expecting Oscar the Grouch and The Count to join in as well.

Atchison did not need to resort to such Pollyannish measures to sell this movie. What was initially a sound movie might, in hindsight, come off as slightly corny. I am betting that local audiences, being less in tune with the cultural milieu of the American that Atchison whitewashes, will be more accepting of its positive message.

First published at incinemas on 31 August 2006

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