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Viewer Guide: “Akeelah and the Bee” and “The Immigrant”

July 6, 2022 | Richard Peña


Akeelah and the Bee (2006).

This week’s double feature begins with Akeelah and the Bee, a 2006 coming of age drama written and directed by Doug Atchison. 

In a breakout performance, Keke Palmer stars as Akeelah Anderson, an 11-year-old living in South Central Los Angeles, whose poor school attendance and low grades have put her on a fast track to summer school, much to the consternation of her single mother, Tanya, played by Angela Bassett. While Akeelah may be unmotivated, she has a valid reason: the tragic death of her father has left her adrift and unfocussed. But Akeelah’s untapped potential emerges in her impressive spelling test scores, revealing a vocabulary far beyond her grade level. Attracting the attention of her middle school principal, Mr. Welch, Akeelah is pressured to participate in the school’s spelling bee, with the winning speller continuing to statewide competition. Eager to generate a success story for the school, Mr. Welch introduces her to his former classmate Dr. Joshua Larabee, played by Laurence Fishburne, an English professor who agrees that Akeelah has the potential to compete—and win—with the proper training. And who knows: with enough preparation, she might even make it to the national Scripps Spelling Bee competition in Washington, D.C. However, put off by Dr. Larabee’s strict rules, Akeelah initially rejects his help—until Tanya’s demand that she attend summer school makes her see the situation in a more creative light.  

Writer-director Doug Atchison received his inspiration for Akeelah and the Bee in 1994 after watching the Scripps National Spelling Bee on television, and realizing the overwhelmingly privileged backgrounds of the young contestants. Envisioning a “what if” scenario of a Black girl competing in the bee but dramatized like a Rocky– style sports movie, Atchison ultimately won a fellowship grant for his script from the Motion Picture Academy. Determined to direct the film himself, Atchison resisted major studio involvement, with the project’s twelve-year development process finally receiving a boost in 2002 from the documentary Spellbound, which helped generate renewed interest in spelling bees. Out of some 300 girls auditioning for the role of Akeelah, Atchison cast the 11-year-old Keke Palmer after five auditions, impressed by her mature grasp of the character and storyline. The film also offered a third reunion for Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne, who had first co-starred in Boyz N the Hood in 1991, and then memorably reteamed in 1993 to portray Ike and Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do With It. 


The Immigrant (2013).

This week’s double feature continues with The Immigrant, a 2013 historical drama directed by James Gray. 

Set in 1921, The Immigrant stars Marion Cotillard as Ewa Cybulska, a young Polish woman arriving at Ellis Island with her sister Magda. With their parents killed in the violent aftermath of World War I, Ewa and Magda are seeking a new beginning, and expecting to be met by an aunt and uncle who have established themselves in Brooklyn; the sisters’ high hopes, however, are dashed when Magda is quarantined for poor health, and Ewa is stunned to find herself faced with deportation due to shipboard accusations of “low morals.” Noticing Ewa’s plight is Bruno Weiss, played by Joaquin Phoenix, who claims to be a representative from the Traveler’s Aid Society. Telling Ewa that her aunt and uncle never showed up, Bruno offers her work as a seamstress at his Lower East Side theater. Ewa warily accepts, but soon discovers Bruno’s theater is in fact a burlesque house, with the show’s dancers also providing additional services for the all-male clientele. Realizing that making money is the only way to liberate herself and reunite with her sister, Ewa becomes resigned to her fate, until she encounters a charming magician named Orlando, played by Jeremy Renner. Intrigued by Orlando’s attentions, Ewa finds herself dawn into a volatile triangle that creates a new threat to her dream of freedom. 

Director James Gray found his initial inspiration for The Immigrant in the real-life stories of his Jewish grandfather, who remembered a man at Ellis Island seeking to entrap unaccompanied women. The Immigrant marks the fourth collaboration for Gray and Joaquin Phoenix, who had previously teamed for We Own the Night, The Yards and Two Lovers. But surprisingly, Gray wasn’t familiar with Marion Cotillard prior to working with her, despite her Oscar-winning breakthrough performance in 2007 as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose. For the character of Ewa, Gray was further inspired by photographer Lewis Hines’ evocative images of women at Ellis Island, as well as the screen personas of Giulietta Masina and such silent screen stars as Maria Falconetti and Lillian Gish. Moved by director William Friedkin’s 2008 LA Opera staging of Puccini’s “Suor Angelica,” Gray also sought to imbue The Immigrant with a similar emotional tone, steeped in the Catholic mystique of the power of redemption. 

Richard Peña is a Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University, where he specializes in film theory and international cinema. 

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