One of the most memorable cinematic motifs of the 90s was director John Singleton's use of omnipresent helicopter noise in his urban nightmare story, Boyz n the Hood. The scenes of gestapo-like stops and searches by burned-out LAPD officers were effective finger-pointing, but it was the ambient noise of low-hovering rotary blades and the occasional swing of a searchlight across the night sky that created a lasting image of South Central Los Angeles as an open-air prison. That this cultural meme has survived long enough to be resurrected in a cheerful nerd-empowerment movie in 2006 must say something about the resonance of film, or the absence of progress in South Central, or both. Akeelah (Keke Palmer), the verbose 11-year old heroine of Akeelah and the Bee, studies and sleeps near a window that is buzzed by traffic overhead, but never lets it deter her from her goal of becoming queen of the school spelling bee. A nice idea, but aside from imparting a respectable message of onward and upward, Akeelah and the Bee has little to offer.
No one goes to a film like this expecting avant-garde storytelling, cutting-edge cinematography, or a last-minute Keyser Soze-like plot reversal, but Doug Atchison's Akeelah is so straitjacketed into formula that it can barely move. The film practically baits us into predicting its moves. Fifteen minutes in, I scribbled the following in my notes: Akeelah's best friend will become put off by her new-found spelling smarts -- will they reconcile before or after she makes it to the big bee? Turned out to be before. With friend in tow, the young heroine hoofs it to D.C. to compete in the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee, that annual happening where the disillusioned copy editors of tomorrow achieve victory or wallow in shame, depending on whether or not, during their flash card drills, they were lucky enough to vacuum up the correct spelling of a certain crater on the moon or the Latin-derived name of a poisonous tree frog that went extinct in 1953. When faced with a word like staphylococci or empennage a Scripps speller can famously forestall disaster by parrying with the judges, asking for sentence usage, etymology, and so on. One kid in this film asks "Can you use the word in a song?"