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In a word, 'Akeelah' spells crowd-pleaser

Help! Our public schools are in crisis. Delinquency, dropouts, plummeting test scores. Even worse, some children are harassed for wanting to broaden their worldviews and fatten their vocabularies. Who will show them that learning is OK -- and show them with flair?

Hollywood has a solution: Akeelah Anderson, the unsinkable 11-year-old title character whom Keke Palmer plays with star-making gusto in ''Akeelah and the Bee."

Akeelah lives in Los Angeles's all-purpose tough Crenshaw neighborhood, and her story is the rare feel-good fantasy with its feet on the ground. She doesn't want to sing, rap, dance, run, or dunk. She wants to spell, which adults in most socioeconomic brackets can confidently encourage a kid to do.

She rises from her under-funded, underperforming school all the way to the National Spelling Bee. And her success is catchy. By the time it's all over, even one of her former bullies wants to spit letters.

It's unlikely she'll do it with Akeelah's style. No one in the history of the movies, and in no National Spelling Bee I've seen, has spelled words with her conviction and defiance. She looks straight ahead, her head weaving side to side as the letters blast out of her mouth. She's not just spelling. She's telling you off.

Akeelah has a loving but overworked mother (Angela Bassett) who can't tolerate her daughter's passion for the bee. The woman has a hospital job to stress over, a dead husband to mourn, a soldier son to worry about, a grandbaby to dote on, and a teenage son to keep from the grubby maw of gangbanging. Poor Akeelah is a rose her mother hasn't time to smell.

Fortunately, the girl's extremely supportive principal (Curtis Armstrong) believes she can make it all the way to the national bee and hooks her up with an English professor who once was a spelling prodigy himself. His name is Dr. Joshua Larabee (tee-hee), he's played by a feeling Laurence Fishburne, who's at his haughtiest and holiest and, after a few scenes, bellowing best.

Akeelah and Dr. Larabee have a rocky start. He doesn't like her bad grammar. She doesn't like what a snob he is.

She's too polite to say so, but she might also hate that she's the Ralph Macchio in this relationship. The good doctor does more gardening than Mr. Miyagi in all the ''Karate Kid" movies combined. In any case, before Larabee can say, ''Wax on," she's devouring words, much to his delight.

But melodrama is in the offing. Akeelah's family doesn't have a monopoly on the blues. Dr. Larabee has lost a little girl, and being in the presence of such a bright kid makes him wistful. Yes, the daughter with no father and the father with no daughter fill each other's voids.

Doug Atchison wrote and directed the movie, which is a triumph of cliche-wrangling, stereotypes, and shrewd packaging (Starbucks is a co-producer and is promoting the movie in every shop). South Los Angeles -- that's South Central to you -- is Hollywood's go-to other side of the tracks. Everybody knows its streets are mean; they saw ''Boyz N the Hood," which happened to star Bassett and Fishburne, who in their three scenes together here still have an intense, sensual crackle.

Bassett's character is the classic commotion-causing black mom. And Akeelah's rival is a pompous 14-year-old Chinese-American kid (Sean Michael), who's a foolproof dramatic foil. He goes to a much nicer school. But in his stern, racist, slave-driving dad, he has a meaner parent, who has programmed his boy to take down the little black girl. The entire picture seems rigged to make you stand up and cheer.

All the gears, in fact, are shamelessly visible, yet they lock smoothly and resonantly into place. If ''Akeelah and the Bee" is a generic, well-oiled commercial contraption, it is the first to credibly dramatize the plight of a truly gifted, poor black child.

Akeelah doesn't really want or need the attention her spelling brings her. She hides her brilliance in slang and posing. As a lot of smart black kids can tell you, that's a survival skill. Knowing too much out loud can get your keister kicked.

The movie nails the contradiction gifted students feel in an inhospitable environment. Akeelah skips a lot of her classes because the curriculum is unchallenging. But her friendship with Javier (J.R. Villarreal), a charismatic fellow speller whose family is much better off, exposes her to nicer neighborhoods and his more academically rigorous school. In one touching scene, Akeelah shows up with her best friend, Kiana (Erica Hubbard), at Javier's house for a party. Kiana is so perplexed by the rainbow of happy, frolicking kids that she can't even bring herself to get out of the car.

Alas, the film is full of black children, like Kiana, whose self-esteem is eaten away by defeatism and a cancerous inferiority complex that seems to pervade the entire community. But in a moment that, due to its uplifting preposterousness, amounts to an act of magical realism, Akeelah's entire neighborhood helps her study for the bee -- from her mother and her mailman to the local gangsta!

Later in the movie, that device is repeated, producing one of the happiest feelings I can remember having in a theater. Obviously, it's emotional propaganda. But it's just the kind of propaganda our children need.

Wesley Morris can be reached at

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