Thankfully, nowhere in the credits for this movie—a small gem, at least within the subgenre of spelling-bee pictures—can the dreaded phrase “based on a true story” be found. Without any historical source to fall back on writer-director Doug Atchison fills the vacuum at the heart of the feel-good template he’s working from with recognizably human emotions. To be fair, Akeelah and the Bee often settles for the predictable: the humorless Asian American nemesis, domineering fathers straight out of Dostoyevsky, and an inevitable third-act montage of flash-card drills. Yet beneath its sentimental exterior, this film is Foucauldian enough to take seriously the idea that knowledge is power. As Akeelah discovers her inner Caliban, coached by stern UCLA prof Laurence Fishburne, she becomes alienated from her South Central friends and high school graduate mom (the always sturdy Angela Bassett). It helps that newcomer Keke Palmer nails it as the 11-year-old prodigy, avoiding cuteness and conveying more angst than all the pasty freaks in Spellbound combined. When she stands up to Fishburne—”dictatorial, truculent, supercilious”—she’s totally convincing as someone who relishes words, which is more than you can say for many of her Tinseltown peers.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 18, 2006