Akeelah and the Bee: Is the Inspiring Movie a Real Story?

Helmed by Doug Atchison, ‘Akeelah and the Bee’ is a drama film that follows a young African-American girl named Akeelah (Keke Palmer) from South Los Angeles who shies away from expressing herself and hides her intelligence in front of classmates to avoid ridicule. She is pushed to participate in the school’s spelling bee by a principal who desperately wants some recognition for his underfunded institution. Upon discovering her precocious grasp of vocabulary, he calls upon a colleague, an English professor named Dr. Larabee (Laurence Fishburne).

Dr. Larabee recognizes Akeelah’s potential and begins to train her for the prestigious national spelling bee. The 2006 critically acclaimed film basically showcases the tale of a young girl hailing from an underprivileged background as she rises past all obstacles and self-doubt. She works tirelessly under an inspirational coach to compete in a prestigious event, which no one of her standing has ever won. The struggles of the spelling prodigy may feel very relatable to some, and her triumphs familiar to many, leaving many wondering whether the story of Akeelah is actually based on the true story one such inspiring individual.

Akeelah and the Bee is Not Rooted in Reality

‘Akeelah and the Bee’ is not inspired by real events. It is driven by a fictional script penned by Doug Atchison, who also serves as the director. He was inspired to make the film when he saw the immensely competitive nature of the Scripps National Spelling Bee on ESPN. The filmmaker felt it was an extremely engaging foundation for a movie. He specifically noticed the highly privileged background of the contestants, with their parents setting aside most of their day to prepare for the event. At the time, no African-American contestant had ever won the prized Bee. Thus, in the late 90s, Atchison started working on a script for a film that would make one such dream a reality and in the process, inspire countless others.

Though the film does not have any origin in real life, in a fulfilling case of reality following fiction, Zaila Avant-garde became the first African-American to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee in 2021. The internet lit up, hailing her as the “real-life Akeelah.” Actress Keke Palmer, who plays Akeelah, took to social media to congratulate Zaila for her historic win and said she was glad to be alive to see it happen finally. When Zaila herself was questioned by reporters about the win, like a true champion, she acknowledged a predecessor buried in the pages of history.

In an interview with ABC News, Zaila spoke of MacNolia Cox, a brilliant 13-year-old Black girl from Ohio who had made it into the final round in 1936. Zaila also talked about how the alleged racial bias from the southern judges at the time seemingly did not afford her a fair chance to win. It is interesting to note that, unlike Akeelah from the drama film, Zaila did not have tutelage of any kind, let alone that of an English professor. Instead, as per reports, she relied on commercially available world lists used in past competitions.

Akeelah faces adversity throughout the movie; she has low grades and attendance as she tries to cope with the tragic passing of her father. Their family struggles to meet day-to-day financial needs. She suppresses her knowledge in school so as to not antagonize her classmates, remaining shy and introverted. Dr. Larabee not only coaches her for the competition but helps resolve her emotional and mental issues. He helps her recognize that she is subconsciously afraid of showing her intelligence and doing well in life. Akeelah’s journey from a reclusive school girl to a confident champion is not just inspirational as an underdog story but also due to its relatability.

Many individuals, at some point in their lives, would have faced similar challenges and felt like they were the ones holding themselves back, just as Akeelah does in the film. Another reason the narrative of Atchison’s film seems familiar is the existence of two other spelling bee-based movies, titled ‘Bee Season’ and ‘Spellbound,’ released in 2005 and 2002, respectively, with the latter bringing knowledge of the competition to the mainstream. Interestingly, ‘Spellbound’ is based on true events of the 1999 National Spelling Bee and follows eight regional winners from different socio-economic backgrounds.

The central message of ‘Akeelah and the Bee’ is that determination, education, and community support can lead to extraordinary accomplishments. It underscores the idea that with hard work and self-belief, anyone can overcome adversity and achieve their dreams. The film promotes the idea that knowledge is a powerful force that can uplift individuals and communities. It is a story of triumph over adversity, the celebration of knowledge, and the belief that one person can make a difference in their community. Even though it doesn’t represent a true story at the time of its inception, there is now an example of its ideals being manifested into reality in the inspiring story of Zaila Avant-garde.

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