Bet You Didn’t Know: Secrets Behind The Making of “Akeelah and the Bee”
In 2006, when black movies usually dealt with themes of drug deals, poor choices and the ghetto, Akeelah and the Bee represented a stark contrast. The film, which featured heavy hitter actors Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett, was uplifting and inspirational. It was a message audiences of ages, races and backgrounds could enjoy. We’re sure you remember this movie, but we bet you don’t know
Though Akeelah took years to come together, once the funding and the actors were in place, the movie was filmed in just 31 days. The film was relatively small budget at just $6 million dollars. During it’s opening weekend, it made that back and 3 times that much ($18, 811, 135) when it closed in July of 2006. Filmed in 31 days with a budget of $6 million.
Unlike most of the films you’ll see featured in our “Bet You Didn’t Know” series, Akeelah is different in that it was directed by a non-black director. Doug Atchison, a graduate of USC, had written and directed two other films before he wrote Akeelah and the Bee. The movie took over 10 years to make from when Atchison first had the idea. Atchison, who was a tutor for disadvantaged students, got the initial idea when he was watching the 1994 Scripps National Spelling Bee.
In an interview with Washington University’s campus paper Student Life, Atchison explained how it happened.
“I was channel surfing and I came upon these kids spelling. You just get sucked in by these kids and you start rooting for them. I look up and I’ve been watching it for three and a half hours. I knew there was a movie here.”
It took Atchison so long to secure funding for his film, pictures that were startlingly similar came out before Akeelah. In 2002, a documentary featuring a black girl named Ashley White from Washington D.C. competing for a spelling bee title was released. While this might seem like this would have discouraged funders from producing Atchison’s movie, producers believe the success of these films helped push his film to theaters. The nation became so interested in Spelling Bees that the Scripps National Competition was aired on live television in 2006.
Small screen success
The film won him the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Nicholl Fellowship. It hit theaters six years later, becoming the first film to be produced by Starbucks. After the film enjoyed moderate critical and commercial success, Atchison signed a three-picture deal with The Weinstein Company.
Laurence Fishburne’s character, Mr Larabee, wasn’t completely fabricated. He was actually based loosely on one of Doug Atchison’s teachers, Mr. Larabell.
Laurence Fishburne almost didn’t get the role though. Originally, the filmmakers thought Sidney Poiter would be good for Mr. Larabee. Eventually, they decided that someone younger would be more appropriate. That’s how Fishburne got the job.
Why Laurence wanted to do this?
Promoting the film during an interview with Oprah, Laurence explains why it was so important for him to take part in the film as not only an actor but as a producer as well.
“First and foremost, I don’t know when the last time there was a movie, featuring an African American female. A film that features an African American female in the lead I think is a very, very significant, important thing. A 12 year old involved in a mental sport that reflects the community in a positive way, that doesn’t deal with negative stereotypes. I thought all those things were important.”
Reuniting Angela and Laurence
Akeelah and the Bee would be the third time Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne would reunite on screen. You may remember they were together in Boyz N The Hood and again in What’s Love Got To Do With It. In an interview with Hollywood Movies, Bassett explained what it was like to work with Laurence again.
“We run into each from then to now when he’s not off doing Morpheus in some exotic locale, but it was great. There’s that twinkle that’s in your eye because you know you’ve got chemistry with this person. You’ve got history with this person, you have the experience, you’re proud of them, you’re proud of this project, and you think it’s a great story to tell. It may not be a two-hander like [What’s Love Got to Do with It] but we’re here together and it’s something good.”
You may remember that Angela’s character, Akeelah’s mom Tanya, wasn’t always so likeable. There were a lot of times where she attempted to stand in the way of Akeelah’s dream as a way to try to protect her. Though she eventually came around, she explained, in an interview with NPR, that it wasn’t hard for her to tap into this character, a woman who was struggle to provide and protect her children.
When I was making the movie, I had as an inspiration, my mom. She was a single parent, my sister and I, growing up in the housing projects. So she put down certain edicts. And it seemed strong at the time. She’d cut out every extracurricular, she’d cut out all the fun until you did what was your job, which was to get your studies. So I took as an inspiration for Tanya, my mom.
Finding Keke Palmer
Once Laurence was cast, the team went out to find the child who would play the title character. the director, Doug Atchison, said finding Akeelah was a huge weight on his shoulders. He and the casting crew auditioned 300 children in LA and NY looking for his star. When Keke Palmer auditioned the first time, Atchison noticed that Keke did something none of the other kids had done before her. He explains in an interview with Radio Free
“We started every kid doing the speech that’s on Larabee’s wall. We had every kid do that first. We eliminated half of them just on the basis of that. And when you see the same thing done over and over and over again–and I sat in on most of those auditions–little variations stand out. And Keke–and it sounds small, but it was a big deal–was the only one that moved her eyes back and forth like she was actually reading something for the first time on the wall. And it struck me that this kid is very good at being real, in the moment.”
But one audition wasn’t all it took though. The producers brought Keke in four more times before she was finally offered the role. In her last audition, she sat down and Atchison interviewed her, seeing if she really had a good grasp on the film’s message.
“And what really clinched it for me is when I interviewed her. Her fifth audition. She came in with her mom and we did like a 20 minute interview. And I asked her questions about the script. She was only ten at the time, but her level of analysis of the script, which she only read once according to her, was deeper than some adults. I would ask her “Why does Dr. Larabee stop teaching her?” And she’d say, “Oh, he’s starting to get too attached and she’s reminding him too much of his daughter, and that’s freaking him out, and he doesn’t want to go there with those feelings. He needs some space at that point.” And I’m like, “Yeah, that’s right. Could you explain that to some of the studio people that question me about that scene?” [laughs] So I realized that in Keke, I had found somebody…I didn’t want to have to painstakingly extract a performance from a kid line by line, but somebody who I could collaborate on as an actor and a director, and not just a child, even though she was a child. She wasn’t overly precocious like a lot of these kids.”
Why did Keke want the role?
Even though Keke Palmer had a pretty advanced understanding about what message the film was going to send, she told NPR that she had more of a childlike reason for wanting to do the film.
It was just so inspiring and because I’m not like Akeelah that made me want to play the role too because I was able to play another person and also because it was so many kids in the movie. A lot of the movies I do there aren’t kids on the set, it’s mainly adults. And I was really excited to do this film also because I’d be able to have fun with the kids and I’d be able to do fun things on the set. Sometimes we’d play Scrabble and also because of the jumping. I double dutch and we double dutched after lunch.
When Akeelah kisses Javier at the end of the film, it was also the first time Keke had ever kissed a boy in real life. Luckily, Keke and J.R. Villarreal had established a decent friendship by the time it came to that. In another interview with NPR, Keke explained how the kiss went down for her.
“It was just funny, I think. We did it so many times it was like a piece of cake. A couple of times we were fake laughing and that’s when we got real laughs. Because J.R., like I said, he’s so funny. I’d fake laugh and he said Keke that’s a fake laugh and I just laughed harder and harder. Everybody’s like this is such a ‘heavy movie’ but it’s a funny movie also, you know?”
Laurence on Keke
J.R. wasn’t the only actor Keke was able to develop a rapport with, in that same interview with Oprah I mentioned earlier, Laurence explained just how talented he thinks Ms. Palmer is:
“This young woman is an extraordinary actress and I think it was an honor for both Angela and I to be in her first starring role.”
Check out the rest of their interview with Oprah in the video below:
Where did Akeelah come from?
Maybe it never occurred to you to ask where the name “Akeelah” came from but there is a pretty interesting story behind it. In the same Radio Free interview, director Doug Atchison explained how he discovered the name during a chance encounter.
“I was a the Pitfire Pizza Grill in North Hollywood, California…there was a girl behind the bar, and I was chatting with her. And I asked for her name, and she said, “My name’s Aqueelah.” And I went, “That’s her name! How do you spell it?” And she spelled it A-q-u-e-e-l-a-h.” So that’s what I wrote down, was “qu.” So I said, “Well what does it mean?” And she said it means, in Arabic, she said, “My mom told me it means princess.” So I called it “Aqueelah and the Bee” with a QU. And then everybody who read it, they were like, “Aqueelah and the Bee.” And I was like, “Okay, let me change it to a K.” I just liked the sound. Akeelah and the Bee. It sounded good. And I changed it to a K, and we showed it at ShoWest… people from the Hollywood for press were there, and one of them came up to me, and he was Arabic. And he said, “So do you know what Akeelah means in Arabic?” And I said, “Yeah, it means princess!” And he consulted with his wife, who’s also Arabic, and he goes, “That’s not what it means.” And I said, “What does it mean?” He said, “It means intelligence.”
That’s much more fitting than princess huh?
In your career have you had low points
And just like her character, Keke Palmer has her own brand of intelligence. When asked what message she took from the film, she explained what she learned by participating in the movie. She said the takeaway is that despite how your circumstances might make you feel like certain goals are unattainable, if you forget the obstacles for a minute, you’ll be able to achieve your goals.
“When I auditioned for Akeelah, in the first audition I was a little bit afraid because I saw girls in there that I had seen on tv before. I was like ‘man, I might as well just walk out of here now because I’m just a newcomer.’ But when I went into the room, I kind of just had to let all of that go and I went in and I was myself. I did the lines the best that I could and I kept getting callbacks and callbacks. And I as I kept getting closer I think that’s, you know like Akeelah, as she started to get further in the Spelling Bee, she started to realize, ‘well hey, maybe I am good enough if I’m getting this far. And that’s what I thought, ‘well hey, I’m good if I’m getting this far.”