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Akeelah and the Bee

The documentary

Spellbound

focused on a real group of children as they prepped for the National Spelling Bee. The film tapped into the newfound popularity of the spelling bee as ESPN brought the event to national attention with its broadcasts of the competitions and the nail-biting agony of the contestants. That film was a genuine charmer that provided insights and bittersweet ironies into the lives of these kids.

The Bee Season

took a more mystical turn as it tried to link a young girl's aptitude for spelling with something almost spiritual.

Akeelah and the Bee

turns to the streets of Compton for its fictional tale of a young girl with a knack for spelling.

Akeelah (Keke Palmer) is a smart girl in a badly performing school where getting an 'A' can get you beat up. Recognizing Akeelah's gift for spelling, a teacher signs her up for the school's spelling bee. Akeelah wins with ease and even impresses Dr. Larabee (Laurence Fishburne), a professor that Akeelah's well-meaning principal (Curtis Armstrong) hopes will be the girl's trainer. Akeelah has mixed feelings about her success. At a certain level she feels proud but she doesn't want to get her hopes up only to be humiliated at a later round by some rich white kids from Beverly Hills. Complicating matters, her overworked mom (Angela Bassett) doesn't approve of her daughter's extracurricular activities. But once Akeelah decides that she wants to go to the National Spelling Bee, nothing will stop her. She then finds not only a trainer but also a father figure in Dr, Larabee.

Akeelah and the Bee follows a familiar trajectory as it weaves its uplifting tale of succeeding against all odds. There's no fancy artistry on display but the film hits some potent emotional notes to deliver a story that just might inspires other kids to dream bigger dreams. The film suffers from some contrivances (Akeelah's mom seems to oppose her spelling activities just to add drama to the narrative) and from stereotyping (the Asian speller and his strict, uptight dad are painful cliches). But the performances of the delightfully spunky Keke Palmer and Laurence Fishburne, along with the emotional uplift of the story, prove very appealing.

The film was a dream project for Doug Atchison who had written the screenplay and refused to sell to anyone not willing to let him be the director. Atchison came to San Diego in April to host a screening of the film for an audience of enthusiastic and appreciative youngsters at the San Diego International Children's Film Festival. He took some time to speak with me about the journey to make the film.

BETH ACCOMANDO: I understand Akeelah took quite awhile to get made?

DOUG A: It was long but I think most films of merit take a long time. This one took very long because it's an unprecedented film in a lot of ways. And Hollywood is somewhat averse to doing things that they haven't seen before. But I would contend that they had seen this before, it's essentially a sports movie, it's structured like Rocky and Hoosiers and Karate Kid. It's just a different kind of character and a different kind of sport. I had the idea back in 1994 when I first saw the National Spelling Bee [on ESPN] but I didn't write the script until 1999. Then in 2000 it won the Nichol Fellowship in screenwriting, which is probably the most significant screenwriting contest in the country. Then we spent about five years trying to get the film made. Finally Lions Gate gave us the go ahead to make it and we shot it last year.

BA: While you were shopping the script around, you received interest from studios but they wanted you to give up on the idea of directing it and to make some changes to the story.

DA: Yes. I was adamant about directing the film and that probably prevented it from getting made for a few years. But it wouldn't have been this movie if I had given it up. It would have been something else and not as good. A lot of the studios wanted to change the Laurence Fishburne character into either a white man or a white woman, and I didn't want to do that, I thought it was important that Akeelah's mentor be someone that comes from her neighborhood, that looks like her, and that as a kid actually made it to the bee. Because Akeelah is really struggling with something of an inferiority complex at the beginning of this film, and in order to get out from underneath this feeling of inadequacy she really needed someone to really look up to like Dr, Larabee. I don't think having a white character from the suburbs would have done that for her. So I held onto it to make sure it stayed what I wrote, and Lions Gate let me film what I wrote and this is entirely the movie I set out to make.

BA: I noticed that Laurence Fishburne is listed as a producer. Did he do that as a sign of support for the film?

DA: He did lend his support. A couple years before we shot he came on board because he had read the script, and he liked it and lent his name to it.

BA: Once you started shooting, what was the biggest challenge you faced bringing Akeelah's story to the screen?

DA: I didn't have a lot of money and time to make it, and when you're shooting with children there are a lot of restrictions put upon you in terms of how long they can work, how long they can be in front of the camera and that was the biggest challenge. Keke is in every scene in the movie except one, and yet we were only able to shoot with her five hours a day and it was only a thirty-one-day shoot. So that was without question the biggest challenge. It required a lot of planning; using two cameras sometimes three, and it required a lot of rehearsal and good budgeting of time.

BA: What kind of working relationship did you development with Keke?

DA: Because we were able to cast her early on I got to know her for three or four months before we began shooting, and then we spent a lot of time going over the script and talking and a solid week of rehearsal with other actors. Also she helped in casting the other actors by reading with them and that served as a kind of rehearsal as well. But Keke is a very smart girl, and a very intuitive actor, a very natural actor. When I found her I knew I wasn't going to have to pry a performance out of her. I just had to make sure that she understood what was going on with the character and get her on the right track in terms of having her make the right emotional choices.

BA: How did she and Laurence Fishburne work together?

DA: I think because Laurence had been a child actor himself [he made Apocalypse Now at the age of fourteen] he understood what she was going through, and they are both very instinctive actors and neither one of them has had formal training. Angela Bassett, on the other hand, went to the Yale School of Drama, and she comes from a different perspective. I was able to handle both kinds of methods. And I think Laurence had a mentoring sort of relationship with Keke off the set because of his years of experience, and I think that lent itself to their relationship on camera.

BA: SO what inspired you to write this? Inspiration

DA: I saw the National Bee when it was first televised on ESPN, and I thought it would be a great competition to center a movie around. I knew it would be dramatic, and I knew it would be exciting. I knew I could make it like a sports movie and I also knew that I wanted to do a Rocky-like story with a kid from a low-income neighborhood who didn't have all the advantages that all the other kids had. She had the talent and she just needed somebody to guide her and support her.

BA: Why do you think there is a fascination with spelling bees recently?

DA: I wrote my screenplay in 1999, and I think once ESPN started televising it, I mean I'm not the only one that recognized the potential there' other people obviously did as well.

BA: What is it about spelling bees that you think grabs people, that hooks them?

DA: I think because it's children and because you naturally care for kids, and you can put yourself in their shoes. Plus everybody thinks they can spell. It's kind of like running a marathon. If you wanted to sign up for the L.A. marathon, you can do it and suddenly you would be in a nationally televised sporting event. So there's something doable about it. There are very few people who can realistically dream of being in the NBA but every kid can realistically dream about being in the spelling bee. So I think it's the accessibility of it and the surprisingly competitive nature of it that attracts people.

BA: Can I ask what kind of student you were in school?

DA: Kind of like Akeelah. I was smart but I didn't get a lot of points for it. Public schools, unfortunately, tend to be like government run daycare centers. You get lumped in with all these kids. Akeelah gets thrown into a school with these kids who tease her and pick on her, and her intellectual curiosity is kind of crushed in the public school system. I grew up in Detroit and I left Detroit when I was seven, and then I was in Phoenix and Tuscan schools until I went to USC film school.

BA: Have you been surprised by any of the reactions you've gotten to the film?

DA: It surprises me how young some of the kids are who enjoy it. I expected ten and eleven-year-olds to get it but kids as young as five and six are also mesmerized by it. I think Keke pulls people in and I think they like seeing other kids empowered.

Akeelah and the Bee (rated PG) is a charmer that hopefully will find its way into classrooms along with works such as Stand and Deliver and the documentary Spellbound as films that can inspire.

Companion viewing: Spellbound, The Bee Season, Stand and Deliver -----

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