Film / Akeelah and the Bee

"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same."
Akeelah (quoting Marianne Williamson)

A 2006 film staring Keke Palmer, Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett, and it just might be the only Spelling Bee drama out there.

Akeelah (Keke Palmer) is a young black girl from South Los Angeles, trying to cope with her father's death and her stifling environment. She's quite intelligent, but performs poorly in school due to the work being boring and unchallenging. She's entered into her school spelling bee in order to avoid detention for missing school, and she easily wipes the floor with the competition, almost bored out of her mind by the ease and simplicity of the words. Dr. Larabee (Fishburne), an English professor, sees her potential and begins to coach her for the more advanced Regional Spelling Bee. Hesitant at first, Akeelah shrugs off his help, fearing that performing well will isolate her and label her as a "brainiac", but her love of words can't be denied, and so she agrees to compete. After barely scraping by the district bee (advancing to the next round only because her older sister sees a parent in the audience mouthing the answer to her son), Larabee begins intense practice, having her not only memorize words at a blinding pace, but also having her become familiar with etymology and the ways that words are constructed.

Akeelah meets Javier Mendez, a competitor at the regional bee, and befriends him. She learns that the Spelling Bee is more than just spelling words; it's competitive parents, cutthroat rivalries, and massive pressure. Akeelah learns about Dylan Chiu, two-time runner up at the National Bee, whose father won't settle for anything less than first. Akeelah's mother Tanya (Bassett) finds out about the bee and forbids her from continuing with it; she doesn't want Akeelah to waste her time with this when she should be completing school work. Her best friend Georgia begins to feel left out as Akeelah spends more of her time studying for the bee and hanging out with Javier than her, and their relationship grows strained.

This film provides examples of:

  • Asian and Nerdy: Dylan's father demonstrates why this trope exists. Truth in Television that Confucian culture places a large emphasis on education and thus some Asian parents can be very, very obsessed with academic competition.
  • Always Second Best: Dylan was said to have been in second place for two years in a row, and he got in second again for the third time later in the film.
  • Brilliant, but Lazy: Akeelah, at first.
  • Chekhov's Gun: In this case, a Chekhov's Word. Earlier in the movie, Dylan asks Akeelah to spell "Xanthosis" to see how good she is, and she starts it off with a "Z". Dylan mocks her. Later, at the National Bee, the word that she purposely spells wrong happens to be "xanthosis"; again, she starts it with a "Z". Dylan instantly knew that she spelled it wrong on purpose because he knew for a fact that she wouldn't make that mistake twice.
    • Also happens with the word "pulchritude". It's the word Dr. Larabee stumps Akeelah with after her win at the school spelling bee, and it ends up being her winning word at the National Bee.
  • Disappeared Dad: Akeelah has one.
  • Disqualification-Induced Victory: Akeelah would have been out in the very early stages of the qualifiers to get to the National Spelling Bee if her competitor's mother had not been caught mouthing him words.
  • Education Mama: Subverted with Akeelah's mother, to the point that she thinks the spelling bee is completely frivolous in regards to her daughter going to school, not realizing that studying and bees go hand in hand.
    • Dylan's father fits this, though, and it's hinted he's trying to get his son to win in an attempt to live through him, as "he's never won anything in his life."
  • Graceful Loser: Javier in spades. When he is eliminated from the competition, he just grins cheekily and begins to theatrically bow to his public in an epic Large Ham fashion, all in good humor.
  • Holding the Floor: When Akeelah leaves the spelling bee temporarily, Javier stalls spelling his word for an absurdly long time to give her time to get back.
  • Kids Are Cruel: The girls and kids who make fun of Akeelah. Averted by Javier, though, who's actually pretty nice to her.
  • Misplaced-Names Poster: See the image above.
  • Never Trust a Title: If you heard the name of the film without seeing an associated image, you might well think that it was some kind of children's adventure film about a girl named Akeelah and a talking bee a la Dot and the Kangaroo, especially outside the USA where spelling bees are unknown, of minor importance or called something completely different.
  • Oh, Crap!: One boy realizes that he misspelled a word before finishing it.
  • Parental Substitute: Larabee for Akeelah. Although he is tough, he works Akeelah so that she can do her best and genuinely cares about her.
  • Replacement Goldfish: Akeelah for Larabee's daughter. He accidentally calls Akeelah by his daughter's name once.
    • Also, as mentioned above, Larabee for Akeelah's father.
  • The Rival: Dylan Chiu, a consecutive second place national winner, and very arrogant. Until his Heel–Face Turn, that is...
  • Second Place Is for Losers: Dylan has gotten second place in the nationals twice, but this does not please his father. In his words: "You're second place again, [then] you're second place your whole life!" Because of this, Akeelah decides to deliberately misspell "xanthosis" because she figures Dylan needs the championship title more than she does and she figures that she still has next year. Dylan immediately realizes what she's trying to do and purposely misspells the word himself, because he wants a fair competition. At that point, they decide to just do their best and hope they both become the champions.
  • Serious Business: Spelling bees, of course, actually to the point where it's referred to this trope by name. This is further discussed on the page.
  • Significant Monogram: Dr. Larabee gives Akeelah a jump rope that has a capital D on one handle and a capital L on the other. It belonged to his daughter, Denise.
  • Spelling Bee: Naturally.
  • Spelling Song: "Respect" by Aretha Franklin makes an appearance after Akeela wins the Statewide Spelling Bee.
  • Spiritual Successor: To Searching for Bobby Fischer - in which Laurence Fishburne also plays a Mentor (albeit a much different sort) to the Child Prodigy protagonist.
  • Take a Third Option: Akeelah and Dylan are each hesitant to win, as it would mean the other would lose. So instead, they both win.
  • Thinking Tic: When spelling words Akeelah often pats her hand on her leg in a constant beat. Upon spotting this, her teacher recognizes this as a rhythm technique and starts having her learn words according to a rhythm so that she'll remember them better.
  • Training from Hell
  • Training Montage
  • Tying Means Friendship
  • Wax On, Wax Off: Akeelah practices jumping rope to keep time and maintain focus.