Special to Page 2
When I wasn't looking, spelling became a sport. ESPN2 annually airs -- to big ratings -- the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee to showcase the battle of the brightest minds. This year's competition will air live on June 1.
With that in mind, here's a look at the best sports movie to come out in a long time.
From the commercials, "Akeelah and the Bee" looked terrible to me.
My assumption was that the film would waste two hours of my life telling me how much black people hate education and use an adolescent speller to spread that message.
Why did this movie have to be about a black girl? What purpose would her blackness serve to the plot?
The movie was produced by Lions Gate Films, an independent company best known for two movies, "Monster's Ball" and "Crash." Halle Berry won Best Actress for her performance in "Monster's Ball," joining Hattie McDaniel's Mammy ("Gone With the Wind") and Whoopi Goldberg's Oda Mae Brown ("Ghost") in Oscar's disturbing roll call of black female winners.
As for "Crash," Scott Foundas of the LA Weekly hit the nail on the head when he wrote the following about the film: "Welcome to the best movie of the year for people who like to say 'a lot of my best friends are black.'" So forgive me for expecting little from Lions Gate.
But I went to see "Akeelah and the Bee" anyway. I competed in a few bees during my childhood, so I figured there would be some nostalgic value. Plus, I figured it would be worth the six bucks to see Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne on screen together sans fisticuffs or the violent use of cake. Fishburne not only starred but also was a co-producer.
To say I was pleasantly surprised is an understatement. I was dead wrong. Instead of seeing a movie I expected to hate, I saw a movie I've always wanted to see. "Akeelah and the Bee" does what so few films do -- it shows an appreciation for the humanity of black folks, a group rarely treated respectfully on screen. And it fired a damaging blow at those who would have you believe that black folks possess a dysfunctional, violent allergy to education.
A few academic theories have trumpeted the "acting white" hypothesis, the notion that black children underachieve in school because they are afraid to be deemed race traitors. The problem with the theory is that being the smart kid in grade school isn't cool anywhere. I haven't checked the Ebonics dictionary lately, but I don't think "dweeb," "dork" and "geek" are words black folks came up with.
Sandy Darity, my mentor in graduate school at North Carolina, did a study with sociologist Karolyn Tyson and psychologist Domini Castellino that found the "acting white" hypothesis to be mostly nonsensical. They found that most black children who purposely underachieved in school did so out of fear of being called things like "egghead" or "brainiac," not because they were afraid of being called "white," "sellout" or "Oreo." Those students who claimed the burden of "acting white" did so in environments where honors and advanced-placement classes had very few black students.
It seems that instead of chastising those kids and saying they're averse to education, it makes more sense to consider that, when some kids look at their schools, it's no wonder education seems so averse to them.
"Akeelah and the Bee" kept all those things in mind.
Akeelah (KeKe Palmer) is an 11-year-old in South (formerly South Central) Los Angeles with an incredible memory and vocabulary, but she is stuck in an underfunded school. The bathroom stalls don't have doors and the curriculum is boring. After catching her teacher's eye with her performance on spelling tests, she's encouraged to enter the school spelling bee and, predictably, wins. From there she moves on to the next level of competition, where she competes with wealthier kids from other parts of Southern California.
At this point in the story, I got worried. Once nonblack people were thrown into the mix, there was room for comparison. Would Akeelah's working-class background and school get mocked when compared to more affluent kids? Would she begin to look down on the folks in her neighborhood after being around rich, ambitious students?
One scene eliminated every doubt I had. While walking with fellow speller Javier (J.R. Villarreal) on the way to a study group, she mentioned that the people at her school look at her like a "freak." With no hesitation, Javier (who attended a different school) assuaged her doubts. And mine.
"They look at us like freaks here, too."
After that scene, the film was inspiring without being cliché. Akeelah wasn't painted as an underdog because of where she grew up or what she looked like. Instead of asking the audience to pity her, director Doug Atchison asked the viewers watching to empower her. He asked the audience to cheer for her just like the cats on the block, the kids in her school and the thug who seemed to be leading her brother astray.
Atchison showed that black people don't just root for athletes and musicians. Like everyone else, black people root for success. For most people, being black means developing a respect for those who deal with the obstacles that race and racism throw into the fray. It's knowing just how hard it can be to simply get the chance to show people what you're made of, let alone develop something worth displaying.
I'm incredulous every time I hear someone complain that black people don't respect education. Perhaps other people's schools were different than mine, but my peers lavished praise upon me for my academic success. Girls hugged me when I won speech tournaments. Dudes gave me pound when I was voted most likely to succeed. To this day, those people manage to find me on the Internet to find out what I'm up to almost 10 years after graduation.
And all those people are black.
I spent most of middle school and the early parts of high school thinking that people would laugh at me and pick on me for doing well in school, and I could only imagine what people would say about my engaging in academic competitions. That fear was almost paralyzing. But I attended a school small enough that there was no hiding being smart. To combat the raging insecurity that came from hormonal surges, I'd convinced myself that being bright was why people didn't like me.
One day, my father came with me to a school open house so he could meet the teachers and make sure I wasn't embarrassing him. On the way home he turned to me and said, "I hear you talking about how much people don't like you, but everywhere we went people were speaking to you. That's not how people are treated when they're not liked."
He was right. As years went on, I saw what was going on. A lot of the people who I thought didn't like me didn't like me not because I was smart but because I spent too much time telling them I was smart. Nobody likes a show-off.
When I did well, black people were happy for me. But after years of being ignored and patronized by the school system, they were happy to see someone who looked like them doing well and being successful. And to my knowledge, none of them accused me of "acting white."
More than once during "Akeelah and the Bee," I cried. Nothing ridiculous, but it brought a tear to my eye to see, finally, someone capture that part of the black experience, to show how much love black people can show each other when someone's doing great things.
Hopefully, it won't be long before there's something else like that on the big screen.
Bomani Jones is a frequent contributor to Page 2. Tell him how you feel at firstname.lastname@example.org.