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Lions Gate Films/Starbucks Entertainment

Official Site

Director: Doug Atchison

Producers: Laurence Fishburne, Sidney Ganis, Nancy Hult, Michael Romersa

Written by: Doug Atchison

Cast: Keke Palmer, Angela Bassett, Laurence Fishburne, Curtis Armstrong, Sean Michael


Ah, the competition movie, an oft-recycled plot structure in the realm of Hollywood cinema. It usually involves a working-class or lower middle-class youth, with a natural talent or ability for something, with dreams of bigger and better things—getting a good education, going to college, achieving a dream. Then our plucky protagonist enters a competition and is suddenly a small fish in a big pond. But the plucky protagonist is our underdog, and even though the odds are against him/her, he/she has the drive to succeed and gets past the early rounds. Of course there’s some tension along the way, perhaps with some family members, rivals, people who don’t believe in our plucky protagonist. The final round comes and well, you know it’s Hollywood cinema people, how do you think it will end?

This time our plucky protagonist is Akeelah Anderson (Palmer). Akeelah is an African-American girl who lives with her family on the south side of LA. She’s a little unmotivated in class, but she’s smart and a gifted speller. Eventually in light of her class absences, she’s coerced into taking part in the school spelling bee, which of course she easily passes, putting her in the running for higher level spelling bees or “the bee” as it’s called in the movie. Akeelah’s mother, Tanya (Bassett), doesn’t seem to have much interest in her daughter taking part in the event. Encouraged by her peers and the memory of her father, Akeelah ultimately decides to go for the brass spelling bee ring, even without her mother’s approval.

Because you always need an old pro or mentor for the plucky protagonist in the competition movie, here we have Dr. Larabee (Fishburne), a former English professor on sabbatical and as well as a strict and gifted linguist. Yes, Ike and Tina Turner do appear on screen together once again.

As silly as it may seem, creating dramatic events around something like a spelling bee, I don’t know, I think the movie works. I found the characters interesting and engaging and Akeelah really is a great underdog you want to root for. The characters all felt nicely fleshed out and weren’t cookie-cutter. It’s obvious that Dr. Larabee is a former family man, and he feels a similar father-daughter connection with Akeelah. The big confession scene you ultimately come to expect in the movie was well played and almost understated. Palmer and Fishburne played it well with as few words as possible, which is a nice change of pace from a tear-jerking, manipulative, and emotional crying scene.

Bassett remains one of the classiest and most beautiful actresses in the business today, showing you can age gracefully and not go the Sharon Stone route of trying to recapture your glory days by acting like, well, acting like a tramp. And when Bassett and Fishburne have their much-anticipated first scene together in the movie, when Bassett’s character asks Fishburne, “Who are you?” I was desperately hoping for Larry to say, “I’m your husband Anna Mae, Ike Turner.”

—Jeffrey “The Vile One” Harris

hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.

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Itís worth a matinee ticket.

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