Lots of movies show poor minority kids who develop character and find success in sports. Akeelah and the Bee is like a sports movie, complete with an inspiring coach, but it celebrates brains rather than brawn.
The movie (rated PG for some middle-school naughty words) is about an 11-year-old inner-city black girl who throws herself into the National Spelling Bee competitions. Akeelah must overcome peer pressure against academic success, an uncomprehending family, her bad school, and her own self-doubts.
Akeelah (Keke Palmer) has the help of a tough-minded spelling coach (Laurence Fishburne) with personal struggles of his own. He does not allow "ghetto talk" and, instead of sticking to memorizing word lists, makes her read essays so that she will realize "the power of words." He teaches her that "big words come from little words" and that the little words come from Latin, Greek, and French words.
Before long, Akeelah is competing in the high-pressure world of championship spell-offs, competing against privileged kids from the suburbs who have their own problems, but with whom she develops a kinship in the love of language.
That this movie was made is itself something of a spelling-bee success story. Doug Atchison's script won an international competition for new screenwriters, beating out over 4,000 other entries. That was back in 2000, but good scripts do not always get bought in today's Hollywood.
Finally, Mr. Fishburne, prizing what the film says to African-Americans, signed on as a producer. Starbucks, in its first attempt at moviemaking, put up the money. And Lionsgate, a studio known for horror films, took up the project and even allowed Mr. Atchison to be the director. The result is an entertaining, positive, and inspiring movie that may be the best sports flick of the year.