Beliefnet
The Bible and Culture

Sometimes movies get it just right. This is one of those cases. It would be hard to imagine a better told family tale of overcoming obstacles to excel than this movie. It is PG rated (apparently because the movie has exactly one 4 letter word in it), and runs one hour and 47 minutes. This is one of those films that you wish were longer in fact. But the story is tightknit, the action follows logically, and the acting is superb– Laurence Fishbane may well get an Oscar nod for this one, and Angela Bassett as the barely coping single Mom dealing with teenage children in south L.A. also does a superb job. But the star of the show is of course Keke Palmer playing Akeelah Anderson, speller extraordinaire.

The story centers on the experiences of Akeelah Anderson at her dirt poor inner city middle school, where kids who excel are ridculed for being brainiacs. Akeelah, though she is bright, tries her best to fit in with the in crowd, by skipping classes and dising school, all the while making A+ in spelling. She has a deep love of words, derived from her father whom she lost at age 9. He was shot on the way home from work in L.A. It is a tough story about coping, and trying to find friends, and at the same time, trying to handle the fact that one is intelligent, but lives in an environment where educational excellence is often ridiculed not encouraged. Viewers will be reminded of ‘Finding Forester’ another great film about a mentoring relationship, but Laurence Fishburne plays a rather different sort of recluse than Sean Connery. He has his own family loses to deal with (loss of his daughter) and then of his marriage to cope with, and serendipitously, Akeelah and Dr. Palmer help each other with these losses.

I will not spoil the story line for you, but I will say this– this movie has plenty of epiphanic moments, not the least of which is the occasion when Akeelah reads the placque on Palmer’s wall which has the famous quote from Nelson Mandela in it about the fact that we are all frightened to be whom God intended us to be– someone powerful, beautiful glorious in God’s image and accomplished. I shed more than one tear in this movie as a teacher and one who needed and revered my own teachers.

Who knew a movie about a spelling bee could be this compelling, this human, this humane and moving? Well, we have one now, and all parents who have children with potential, much of which is still unrealized, should go with their children to see this movie and learn the role parents and mentors ought to play in their children’s education, and along the way learn some lessons about how “a mind is a terrible thing to waste”. As we stand on the cusp of the summer movie season full of fluff, and fun, and “much ado about nothing” if you can only go to one movie with your family, go to this one. You will be the richer for it. “Train up a child in the way that she should go, and she will not depart from it in her old age.”