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Film / Akeelah and the Bee

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

Akeelah Anderson (Keke Palmer) is a middle school-aged 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. Principal Welch wants her to enter the spelling bee and work her way up to the Scripps National Bee because their school's funding was severely cut due to low test scores, leaving the school in squalid conditions. 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 e-x-e-m-p-l-i-f-i-c-a-t-i-o-n-s of:

  • Always Second Best: Dylan was said to have been in second place for two years in a row. He ends up becoming co-champions with Akeelah at the end of his third try.
  • Arrogant Kung-Fu Guy: Dylan’s attitude towards the other students who have participated in the spelling bee comes off as this. He does outgrow this. Also, it's not entirely his fault, his father is forcing him to outperform all the other students.
  • Artistic License – Linguistics: During the local spelling bee at Akeelah's middle school, the first word to spell is "grovel". Chuckie spells it as "gravel", making the teacher correct him it was "g-r-o-v-l". She's missing an 'e' after the 'v'.
  • Asian and Nerdy: Dylan's father demonstrates why this trope exists. Dylan himself is also this. Truth in Television that Asian parents can be very, very obsessed with academic competition.
  • Both Sides Have a Point: When her mother is right when she chews her out for flunking out of school to get ready for the spelling bee, Akeelah also makes a point when she tells her mom of how much she hates her school and that nobody (not even Akeelah herself) shows a care in the world there.
    Akeelah: We can't call it off. I'm going to the regional bee.
    Akeelah's mom: Not if you flunk out of school, you're not. I just got a letter, saying you gotta take summer school to make up for all these classes you just skipped.
    Akeelah: Mama, I hate Crenshaw. It is so boring there and nobody cares.
  • Brilliant, but Lazy: Akeelah, at first. She routinely skips all her classes, and so she is mandated to attend summer school. When her mother reprimands her for her skipping classes, Akeelah retorts that she despises the deleterious and squalid conditions of the high school (a predominantly black school) she has to attend claiming that it's so underfunded students have to study on the stairways.
  • The Bully: The two girls who make fun of Akeelah. They eventually reform and support her spelling endeavor.
  • 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 was the one to teach her that word.
    • 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.
  • Congruent Memory: Dr. Larabee has Akeelah practice spelling while jumping rope after noticing that she taps rhythms while trying to concentrate. During the spelling bee, she has to mimic jump-roping to remember a particularly difficult word.
  • Disappeared Dad: Akeelah's father was killed when she was just six years old.
  • Disappointing Older Sibling: Akeelah’s older brother and sister, respectively. The former is a delinquent who gets in trouble with the police. The latter became a teen mom.
    • Averted with Akeelah's oldest brother, who is shown to have joined the Air Force.
  • 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 there's a "g" in carmagnole, a word of French origin.
  • Education Mama:
    • Zigzagged with Akeelah's mother, who 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. She doesn't seem to realize that Akeelah's principal is enforcing the bee upon her to boost funding for the school.
    • Dylan's father Mr. Chu is a Chinese tiger parent, 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." Mr. Chu isn't even satisfied with Dylan coming in 2nd place at the Scripps Bee two times in a row, making Dylan grow weary of winning.
  • Forbidden Friendship: Mr. Chu (Dylan's father) restrains Dylan from interacting with Akeelah, who wants to befriend Dylan. He contemptuously calls Akeelah "a little black girl" who competes against Dylan in the spelling bee.
  • Freudian Excuse: The only reason Dylan comes off as arrogant is because his father is a hardass when it comes to academics. Dylan’s father wants to live vicariously through his son. Akeelah realizes this and sympathizes with Dylan.
  • Friendless Background: Dylan isn’t shown to have any friends. (Javier remarks that he was forced to invite Dylan to his birthday party.) It’s implied that this is partially his father’s doing. However he does eventually warm up to Akeelah.
  • 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. (He's lost previous spelling bees and achieved lower-ranking places in the past)
    • When Akeelah's sister catches one of the finalist cheating (because the boy's mom mouthed him the letter "g"), the cheating boy's mother tries to tell them that her son knew the word, until the boy admitted that he didn't.
  • 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.
  • Hypocrite: Dr. Larabee at first forces Akeelah to spell more words after she already won her school's own spelling bee, and then he outright refuses to coach her calling her "insolent". And then when Akeelah's mother chews him out for this claiming that Akeelah needs him to be her coach, Dr. Larabee tries manipulating her with the words "I beg to differ" in a soft tone.
  • Insane Troll Logic: Dr. Larabee attacks Akeelah's pleas for silence during her spelling practice (when a Rottweiler was barking) claiming that the audience is going to be just as loud during the bee. Larabee is absolutely wrong, the audience is not allowed to be cacophonous. Talking will get you automatically ejected, the most you can do is whisper and that's nowhere near as loud as a Rottweiler's barking.
  • Jerkass: Dr. Larabee. He picks on Akeelah for not knowing as many words as he does, without even taking into account the wide age gap between him and Akeelah, who is young and inexperienced.
  • Kick the Dog:
    • One of Akeelah's supporters while watching the bee from a diner comments that he hates that "Korean" kid Dylan, despite never even meeting Dylan in-person.
    • At the Washington DC hotel the day before the National Scripps Spelling Bee, Dylan's father shoos out Akeelah for trying to invite Dylan over for a slumber party. Mr. Chu also expresses his contempt towards Akeelah for being black, refusing to see his son lose anything to her be it the spelling bee or Scrabble games.
  • Meaningful Background Event: A clip of the previous year's spelling bee is shown In-Universe. A girl spells a word correctly and wins. Dylan, whose character has not been officially introduced, is shown sitting behind her, hanging his head. It is later revealed that he came in second place twice in a row and that his father puts a lot of pressure on him to win, even when it comes to fun board games.
  • Misplaced-Names Poster: See the image above.
  • Mouthy Kid: This was Larabee’s first impression of Akeelah. He later does get to know her & realizes she’s not that bad.
  • 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.
  • Puppy Love: Akeelah and Javier are implied to have a mutual crush. When they are on a plane flying to the national spelling bee, Akeelah kisses Javier on the cheek to ease his nerves about flying. (And it seems to work.)
  • 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.
  • Rich Language, Poor Language: The first order Dr. Larabee gives Akeelah when mentoring her for the district spelling bee is to "leave the ghetto talk outside." She immediately gets mad at him for criticizing the way she naturally speaks.
  • 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.
  • Teen Pregnancy: Implied with Akeelah’s sister, who is constantly carrying her infant around.
  • 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.
  • Throwing the Fight: Attempted, but then defied. In the final round, Akeelah deliberately misspells "xanthosis" because she figures Dylan needs to win the spelling bee more than she does because this is the last year he’ll be able to be in the National Spelling Bee and it’ll make his father proud of him. However, Dylan realizes what she's trying to do and deliberately misspells the word himself because he doesn’t want her to sabotage herself out of pity for him. He also doesn’t want to prove anything to his dad and wants to win fair and square. Akeelah and Dylan then both agree to just give it their all, and they both end up as co-champions.
  • Training Montage: Akeelah has one as Dr. Larabee trains her how to spell big words while making her do jump rope.
  • Tying Means Friendship
  • Vicariously Ambitious: Dylan's comment that his dad has never won anything implies that he's pushing his son so he can achieve victory through him.
  • Wax On, Wax Off: Akeelah practices jumping rope to keep time and maintain focus.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Akeelah's mom calls Akeelah out when Akeelah admits that she went to Woodland Hills by herself to prepared for the spelling bee, ditching school, and going to the spelling bee without her permission.
    Akeelah's mom: Akeelah Anderson, you're 11 years old, you don't be taking the bus to Woodland Hills by yourself. So if this spelling bee means sneaking off the Suburbs by yourself, I'm calling it all off.
  • Wrong-Name Outburst: Dr. Larabee calls Akeelah during one moment "Denise," whom she eventually discovers is his dead daughter.