Akeelah and the Bee tells the story of 11 year old Akeelah Anderson (Keke Palmer) who lives in South Central Los Angeles. Akeelah is a gifted student who must overcome personal challenges and those within her community in order to make her way to the National Spelling Bee. How Akeelah makes that journey is funny, heartwarming and a tearjerker.
The movie opens with Akeelah at Crenshaw Middle School. Crenshaw is the type of school where many of the children HAVE been left behind. As Akeelah notes at one point in the movie, the student restrooms do not have doors and the classes do not have up-to-date textbooks. However, in spite of this environment, Akeelah succeeds. As Akeelah’s teacher walks around the classroom and returns the week’s spelling tests to each student (all of the grades are Cs, Ds, and Fs), Akeelah gets 100% on her test. Akeelah’s teacher wants to know how long Akeelah studied and Akeelah says she doesn’t. As it turns out, Akeelah has inherited a gift and love of words from her father who was killed tragically while making his way home one evening.
Seeing Akeelah’s talent, the teacher encourages Akeelah to enter the school’s Spelling Bee tryout. With some hesitation (Akeelah doesn’t want to draw attention to her intelligence at school because the “cool” kids think she’s a freak and beat her up until she does their homework), Akeelah agrees to enter the school’s Spelling Bee. The words at the Crenshaw’s Spelling Bee are a piece of cake and Akeelah wins the Bee with ease. However, Dr. Larabee (Laurence Fishburne, Morpheus from the Matrix Trilogy) stands up. Dr. Larabee is a friend of Mr. Welch, Crenshaw’s principal. Dr. Larabee challenges Akeelah with the word “prestidigitation” and Akeelah spells it correctly (shown in the trailer). Larabee recognizes Akeelah has a gift but needs to be coached. Larabee also sees something special in Akeelah (important later). Akeelah, while gifted, is a little sassy and hasn’t quite learned the art of patience. Akeelah is also afraid to fail in front of others so her attitude masks her fear of failing or “not being good enough”.
Akeelah’s principal, Mr. Welch (Curtis Armstrong), talks Dr. Larabee into coaching Akeelah at the Regional Spelling Bee. Akeelah soons discovers the Spelling Bee circuit is serious “sh*t” as one of the student’s notes. The Spelling Bee isn’t a game it’s a challenging contest requiring students to know Latin and Greek. Students have to know the origin of words and their definitions (important later). Many of the entrants have returned year after year in search of the elusive Spelling Bee Championship. In addition, many of the students are coached privately by parents, participate in spelling groups, move in the same social circles (such as birthday parties) and have strong financial/emotional support systems.
Akeelah feels a bit out of place among these students. Akeelah’s mother (Angela Bassett) is unable to offer emotional support while working many hours at the local hospital. Akeelah’s older brother is away in the military and her younger brother is being recruited by the local drug lord. Akeelah’s sister is a teenage mom. In addition, Akeelah’s mother doesn’t offer support because she doesn’t want to see Akeelah get her heart broken if she loses the Bee. Consequently, Akeelah’s mother doesn’t encourage her to participate in the Bee (important later).
Larabee begins coaching Akeelah for the Regional. He teaches Akeelah the importance of conquering her fear (especially when Akeelah doesn’t feel as good as the other kids) and makes Akeelah learn a poem. Larabee also tutors Akeelah in Latin, Greek and other languages which aids her spelling. Larabee also discovers Akeelah has a technique for spelling words. Whenever Akeelah spells she pats her leg with each letter. This rhythmic patter helps Akeelah memorize words and prevents distractions. Larabee gives Akeelah a jump rope with the initials “D.L.” (important later) and asks Akeelah to use it while spelling Akeelah doesn’t miss a word!
At the Regional, Akeelah gets to meet two of her competitors who have a history with the National Spelling Bee : Javier (J.R. Villarreal) and Dylan (Sean Michael). Javier’s father is a journalist who is loving and supportive. Javier was ranked #13 in the previous year and simply hopes to do better. In addition, Javier develops a crush on Akeelah and protects her when most needed by stalling the Bee judges. As it turns out, Akeelah forged her father’s signature on the Spelling Bee participation form because she knew her mother wouldn’t sign the form. When Akeelah’s mother discovers the forgery, she goes to the Regional Bee and attempts to pull Akeelah out. The judges give Akeelah a break in order to discuss the matter with her mother, Welch and Larabee - but threaten to disqualify her if she does not return by the next round when it’s her turn to spell. Seeing what happened, Javier decides to protect Akeelah (HILARIOUS SCENE). Javier stalls the judges by asking them to use the word he’s given in a sentence over and over, asks for the definition of the word, and asks for the origin of the word (Javier already knows the answers but he doesn’t want his sweetheart disqualified). Akeelah returns with her mother’s approval (Akeelah’s mother sees how serious Akeelah is about spelling), spells her word, and wins a spot on the team going to the National Bee.
Dylan, Akeelah’s nemesis, earns a spot on the team too. Dylan comes from a completely different background where winning is everything (Dylan seems to have is a robotic desire to learn words). Dylan has participated twice in the National Spelling Bee and has come in #2 on both occasions. Although many parents would be happy to see their kids be the second best speller in the ENTIRE nation, this simply isn’t good enough for Dylan’s father (who is Dylan’s coach too). Dylan’s father is verbally abusive to Dylan for coming in second. In addition, Dylan’s father seems to live his life through Dylan (important later) and is disturbed by the idea that a “silly, black girl” like Akeelah could challenge Dylan (Akeelah overhears Dylan’s father at Javier’s birthday party).
All of the elements come together as Akeelah trains for the National Bee but Larabee startles Akeelah with a surprise Larabee says he cannot coach Akeelah anymore. As Larabee tells Akeelah, he seems to be undergoing some sort of panic attack.
In addition, Akeelah is startled when Larabee calls her “Denise”. Larabee gives Akeelah some notecards with words and sends her on her way. Akeelah is heartbroken and tells her mom she wants to quit because the Bee is too tough. Akeelah’s mom goes to see Larabee and asks why he refuses to coach Akeelah further. Larabee explains how the Spelling Bee competition works it requires time and dedication. Akeelah’s mom finally “gets it” (she’d been so absorbed by working that she couldn’t provide the support Akeelah needed). Akeelah’s mom returns to help Akeelah with her spelling and points out Akeelah has “50,000 coaches in the neighborhood if she would just look around” (important later).
One day while jumping rope and spelling, Akeelah sees the initials “D.L” on the jumprope’s handpieces. Akeelah puts two and two together and goes to see Larabee. As it turns out, Larabee had a daughter named Denise. Denise was about Akeelah’s age when Denise died due to illness. When Denise died, Larabee had a nervous breakdown and could not function. Larabee lost his wife and resigned from his teaching post at UCLA because he could not deal with teaching or unpredictability.
During Akeelah’s first visit to Larabee’s office, Akeelah sees Larabee’s office is like a museum everything is in it’s place and NOTHING had been moved since his daughter’s death (Akeelah sees a small figurine on Larabee’s desk, picks it up in an effort to admire it and Larabee tells her to put it down). Larabee couldn’t stand the idea of anyone touching his daughter’s things. Meeting Akeelah reminded Larabee of his daughter and Larabee begins to come out of his shell. That’s why Larabee gave Akeelah the jumprope with the initials “D.L.” the jumprope belonged to Larabee’s daughter who loved words too and spelling too.
While at the office, Akeelah tells Larabee how much she needs him and Larabee pulls himself together to go to Washington, D.C. for the National Bee. Akeelah discovers her mother’s statement about 50,000 coaches in the neighborhood is true. The entire neighborhood lends support. The men at the local gathering place begin to watch Akeelah on tv and cheer Akeelah on! Even the local drug lord INSISTs Akeelah’s brother help her win the Bee…the drug lord is an aspiring rapper who says rap is nothing more than words/poetry set to music. He sees Akeelah as a kindred spirit because they share a love for words. In one hilarious scene, the drug lord is watching Akeelah on tv saying kick (Dylan’s) b-u-t-t (shown in the trailer).
Akeelah makes it to Washington, D.C. with her family and friends to support her.
On the night before the event, Akeelah is in her room with her best girlfriend and Javier. Akeelah says they should have invited Dylan to come over maybe he’s not a bad kid. Javier says he really doesn’t like Dylan and Dylan was invited to Javier’s birthday party because their parents are friends. Akeelah decides to ignore Javier and goes to Dylan’s room to invite him over. Dylan’s father answers the door and says Dylan can’t come out Dylan isn’t allowed to take a break even the night before the event when most kids are having fun. Dylan overhears Akeelah attempting to include him in the festivities. Dylan’s father tries to close the door in Akeelah’s face but Akeelah stops him and leaves a can of soda for Dylan. Dylan is touched someone cared enough to think of him because he never has any fun (important later).
The Spelling Bee begins the next day. Akeelah, Javier, and Dylan make it into the top five. Javier misses a word and loses. As he leaves the stage, he blows kisses to the audience and offers his sweetheart encouragement - telling Akeelah the prize is hers to take. Akeelah and Dylan are the last two competitors left. Akeelah gets a word “xanthosis” which she knows how to spell Dylan had taunted her earlier when Akeelah spelled the word with a “z”. Akeelah always learns from her mistakes so she knows how to spell the word. However, Akeelah feels badly about how Dylan has been berated by his father. Akeelah is only 11 and feels she can win next year so she attempts to “throw” the championship by deliberately spelling the word incorrectly (Dylan is 14 and this is most likely his last chance). Akeelah begins to spell with word with a “z” and Dylan looks at Akeelah in astonishment (he KNOWS she’s throwing the competition). When Dylan gets the chance to spell the word, Dylan “misses” it too! It turns out Dylan is rebelling against his father who “has never won anything in his life” and lives through Dylan’s accomplishments. That’s why Dylan’s father pushes Dylan so hard. In addition, Dylan knows the meaning of the word honor and doesn’t want someone to GIVE him the title. He tells Akeelah to do her best in competition or he doesn’t want the title.
Akeelah and Dylan smile at each other knowing they are good competitors. Akeelah remembers Larabee’s words of encouragement “give Dylan a run for his money”. Akeelah’s the only one who can bring out the best in Dylan because she’s as competitive and strong-natured as Dylan. Akeelah and Dylan battle head to head for the title and EXHAUST the Spelling Bee championship’s word book. Dylan and Akeelah share the title as everyone else looks on…as the movie ends Akeelah says the word
l-o-v-e means the most to her. It is what she received from her friends and community when she needed it most and Akeelah no longer feels like a freak or an outsider because she a bright kid. THE END.
P.S. Watch out for the “nod” to matrix. One of the kids in the movie is asked to spell the word Merovingian…As many of us know, the Merovingian was a character in the Matrix trilogy who held the keymaker hostage and Laurence Fishburne starred in the trilogy! You’ll giggle when you see it!