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April 26-May 2, 2006

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'Akeelah and the Bee'

To Bee or Not To Bee: Laurence Fishburne goes way beyond the ABCs in 'Akeelah and the Bee.'

Casting a Spell

The mush will make you blush in spelling-bee uplift epic 'Akeelah and the Bee'

By Richard von Busack

THE IDEA that liberal pieties are the problem in cinema is itself a liberal piety. Movies that try to engage a social issue deserve some special regard, particularly when the popular cinema will someday be lowering itself to ground below even Snakes on a Plane. But Akeelah and the Bee is suspicious from the get-go. Here the company that tried to eliminate the word "small" from the English language is co-producing a film on the importance of words. Starbucks' money helped finance Akeelah and the Bee; director Doug Atchison's movie is being cross-promoted at every one of the Mermaid's national colon-irritation centers. What's in it for them? The answer is all too apparent: you'll need to buy a "venti" and possibly a "grande" to keep your eyes open to the end.

Akeelah (Keke Palmer) of South-Central L.A. has a secret: an ability to spell. When this talent is discovered, her principal heads her in the direction of a mentor named Dr. Larabee (Laurence Fishburne). Larabee teaches the girl to say "ask" instead of "aks" and leads her on the way to the Scripps National Spelling Bee. The latest and most fulsome bee-movie is an improvement over Bee Season in one respect. Bee Season claimed that correct spelling is the way of contacting the divine; Akeelah only puts Western civilization on the line. Our heroine's rival in the spellathon is an Asian version of Draco Malfoy (called Dylan and played by Sean Michael Afable), a child being pushed to win at all costs by his inhumanly cold old-world father (Tzi Ma).

This bit of anti-Ebonics propaganda is more than just a day late. While watching the montages of words filing by, syllable by syllable, one mentally files through incidents from the first and best spell-geek picture, Spellbound (the documentary, not the Hitchcock thriller). Particularly, one recalls the interviewees explaining how little that spelling trophy can mean in later life. Is it worth inducing ulcers in our children with this conservative filiopietistic fad (that adjective is turns up in the finals during Akeelah and the Bee). Friends, should we turn our kids into two-legged word-of-the-day calendars?

The rigged manner of this script is suspicious, with Angela Bassett as Akeelah's mom thinking bad thoughts about her child's spelling ability. Her doubts vanish when she meets Dr. Larabee, but there's no good reason why she wouldn't be proud of her child. Also suspicious is the one-dimensional Asian-kid villainy. Stepping around black stereotypes, the film squishes its two left feet right in the mire of Asian stereotyping. Akeelah and the Bee can't be blamed on the actors. Keke Palmer plays the lead appealingly. Though handicapped by having to talk like Brainy Smurf, Fishburne has the gravity of Othello now—10 years after he played the Moor onscreen. Naturally, Akeelah and the Bee appeals to the public despairing over the lack of reading skills in urban youth. Yet I was personally shocked by Larabee grossly mixing a metaphor: "This spelling bee is a tough nut that can chew you up and spit you out." Nuts, perhaps; tough, perhaps not.

Movie TimesAkeelah and the Bee (PG; 112 min.), written and directed by Doug Atchison, photographed by David Mullen and starring Laurence Fishburne and Keke Palmer, opens Friday valleywide.

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