Akeelah and the Bee (2006)
Starring Keke Palmer, Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Curtis Armstrong, Tzi Ma
Written and directed by Doug Atchison
Produced by Laurence Fishburne, Nancy Hult Ganis, Sid Ganis, Daniel Llewelyn, Michael Romersa
2929 Entertainment / Lionsgate / Starbucks Entertainment
"Akeelah and the Bee" follows the Hollywood formula of a gifted but troubled competitor confronting destiny. The ingratiating film tells the story of an 11-year-old girl from a struggling Los Angeles school who aims for the National Spelling Bee, despite a social environment that presents huge obstacles. Akeelah's widowed mother Tanya, for instance, is barely keeping it together raising the family by herself. Fair enough, except that the film tells us that the bitter Tanya had to settle for being a nurse instead of a physician after dropping out of college. In other words, nurses are sad physician wannabes who lack college-level training. In this respect, "Akeelah" pushes a vision of African-American professional achievement that is as elitist, shallow, and inaccurate as that of its sophomoric cousin, the prime time soap "Grey's Anatomy." When applied to nursing, that vision damages public health.
Akeelah (Keke Palmer) is a bright word freak who wants to excel. But she seems trapped by an underfunded urban school that she can't respect, and her desire to fit in with peers by not seeming too smart. So she aces spelling tests without studying, but also misses enough class that she has to attend summer school. When one of her teachers and the school principal Mr. Welch (Curtis Anderson) see her potential, they push her to compete in spelling bees. To train Akeelah, Welch enlists his old college friend Dr. Larrabee (Laurence Fishburne), an English professor on sabbatical. (Yes, Larry Fishburne actually plays a character named "Larrabee" who is expert in the Bee.)
As Akeelah takes tentative steps toward her true potential, she must contend with mockery from her peers and a difficult home life. At the center of that is Tanya (Angela Bassett), who has struggled to raise the family since her husband was killed years ago. Akeelah's one older brother exudes self-hate, and seems to be hanging with the wrong crew. He and Tanya clash constantly. Akeelah's older sister lives at home with her own baby. A friendly, supportive older brother serves in the Air Force and is aiming for flight school; he seems to represent the possibility of success despite the odds.
In early scenes, Tanya is angry all the time, and she seems to view Akeelah as another one of her problems. Tanya wants Akeelah to focus on her homework rather than some spelling bee nonsense, and she has no interest in attending Akeelah's first bee or helping her prepare for it. We see Tanya in her scrubs, snapping that she has to " work at the hospital on Saturday." Tanya isn't exactly on a starry-eyed health care mission, and her personal conduct includes smoking cigarettes in the house in which her infant granddaughter lives.
So Akeelah sneaks around to attend practice sessions, and forges her dead father's signature on a parental consent form. Her relationship with Larrabee is a fairly standard prickly teacher / maverick student one. They trade barbs as he guides her in the secret ways of champion spellers. At one point, Larrabee demands to know whether Akeelah has any goals in life: "What would you like to be when you grow up? A doctor, a lawyer...a standup comic?"
Eventually, Tanya learns what is going on, and there is a big confrontation. Seemingly because of Larrabee's savvy intervention, and the dawning realization that this could actually help Akeelah academically, Tanya agrees to let her daughter continue. From then on, we see another side to Tanya. In fact, from then on we see only that other side. Tanya supports Akeelah, smiles a lot, and even explains her desperate efforts to keep Akeelah focused on schoolwork:
Later, Akeelah asks hopefully: "You think you might go back to college?" Tanya: "I just might." The gifted Bassett does what she can to convince us that this all makes sense. And without revealing too much, I can say that Akeelah makes some progress in her spelling, gains new friends, empowers her family and community, and touches the hearts of millions of moviegoers.
Don't get me wrong--this is a well-acted and at times moving film. We could do worse than a successful Hollywood movie whose heroes out-geek their competitors by spelling obscure words, which, as it turns out, involves practical linguistics, scholarly commitment, and tactical maneuvering. The movie also says that kids in troubled schools have potential and can succeed despite their surroundings. Admittedly, the picture is formulaic and schematic, basically an afterschool cupcake with A-list Hollywood actor icing. It encourages the audience to confuse spelling with thinking. And the writing is uneven. Viewers get some funny lines and clever plot twists, but must also contend with forced dialogue and two-dimensional minor characters doing whatever will achieve maximum uplift. The overbearing father of an elite Asian speller is unlikely to win awards for nuance from Asian advocacy groups.
"Akeelah" sends a terrible message about nursing. Actually, as far as we could see, the movie never clearly says Tanya is a nurse, and we found no authoritative statement from the filmmakers. But we understand that Bassett wore hospital ID (right) in the filming indicating that her character is a registered nurse. Perhaps more important, Tanya dresses and looks like a nurse, and many viewers, including professional reviewers, have stated that she is one (See reviews 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10). It seems fair to say that many if not most of the millions of people who will see the film will take Tanya to be a registered nurse.
"Akeelah"'s portrayal of nursing is a limited portion of the film, but it lies at the core of the movie's young achiever message. In essence, that message is: work hard, fear not, and with luck, things like nursing--dead end jobs for people who don't go to college--will not happen to you.
This is grossly inaccurate. It takes at least three years of college-level training in nursing to become a nurse. Over one million U.S. nurses have bachelor's degrees in nursing. About 400,000 have graduates degrees in nursing. Nurses like Tanya provide life-saving care to the same urban populations the film examines, including young, at-risk mothers like Akeelah's sister. Graduate-prepared nurse practitioners provide high quality care to these same groups. And doctorally-prepared nursing scholars work on the leading edge of research to improve the health of poor urban communities, addressing problems like HIV, diabetes, and domestic violence. Yet inaccurate images like the one in "Akeelah" continue to play a role in the nursing shortage that is taking lives and eroding health systems worldwide.
The film predictably contrasts nursing with the glory of medicine, the profession Tanya wanted to join before her dreams were crushed. "Dr." Larrabee trots out the old "doctor-lawyer" cliché in pushing Akeelah to consider her long-term goals. Of course, "The Cosby Show" likewise placed "doctor-lawyer" at the heart of its portrait of bourgeois black achievement two decades ago. "Akeelah" suggests that the bottom line remains that persons of color achieve by joining the same old esteemed professions. There's no need to question the fairness or accuracy of traditional assumptions about what kind of work has worth. The trick is to learn how to win, and devil take the hindmost--an idea the film questions when it comes to spelling bees, even as its vision of the professions strongly reinforces it.
Not a great film, "Akeelah" may be an influential one. This is not only because of its emphasis on crowd-pleasing and the resulting box office success. The film may well be embraced by a generation of kids, parents, and teachers as an exemplar of academic and personal achievement. Few Hollywood films make serious heroes out of bookworms from South Los Angeles.
The film deserves praise for its overall empowerment message, not to mention teaching us a few new words. But in the subject of nursing, it gets a failing grade. That's spelled "F."
Reviewed by Harry Jacobs Summers
The views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the Board Members or Advisory Panel of The Truth About Nursing.
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