In the film Akeelah and the Bee
, a young inner-city girl is a child genius, much like these real-life whiz kids
. The breakout star of the movie is 12-year-old Keke Palmer who plays the title role. As the movie opens, Akeelah spends her time trying to hide her intelligence from her friends in her tough Los Angeles neighborhood.
When a retired professor, played by Academy Award®-nominated actor Laurence Fishburne, sees her win her school's spelling bee, he takes her under his wing to coach her—for the National Spelling Bee. Akeelah's mom, played by Academy Award®-nominated actress Angela Bassett, is a widow struggling to raise four children. She's a woman who doesn't seem to have time for spelling bees.
During the course of the film, Akeelah gets all the way to the National Spelling Bee and carries the hopes and dreams of her community with her.
"Critics predict it will become the sleeper hit of the year. I'm not a critic, but I predict that, too," Oprah says. "This is the movie you want your kids to see."
Not only did Keke have to shine in her first film role while sharing screen time with two Oscar-nominated actors, she also had to spell some really difficult words.
"My mom, my sisters and my dad helped me study for the words," Keke says. "My sister was 16 at the time, I was 11, and she threw a little spelling bee. We would take all the words from the script and would spell them together. Whoever won would get $10…so I won."
Was Keke ever intimidated by her famous co-stars? "At first I was a little scared [of Laurence] because I've seen The Matrix," she says. "I was like, 'Well, my God. This is going to be Morpheus!' But then when I met him, he was so nice. We joked around and had fun."
Angela Bassett and her husband, Law and Order's Courtney Vance, are new proud parents of twins—daughter Bronwyn and son Slater—born just weeks ago through a surrogate.
Angela says her role of Akeelah's doubtful mom reminded Angela of her own mother. "My mom was a single mom also," Angela says. "When she worked, she was out of the house a lot. She was really hard on me. She was with the teachers [asking], 'How is she doing in your class?' She really wanted the best for [me], but she also had to deal with issues of character."
Laurence Fishburne, who is also a producer of Akeelah and the Bee, says the movie was a labor of love. "It's a family movie," he says. "This is a movie that you may think you know what it's about. … But it's not just about a spelling bee."
These seasoned actors were both impressed with Keke's emotional performance. "It's such an honor to be working with you and to be a part of your history," Laurence tells Keke. "This young woman is an extraordinary actress. It was an honor for both Angela and I to be in her first starring role."
Akeelah and the Bee also has a profound social implication. "I don't know the last time there was a movie that the lead of the movie was an African-American female," Laurence says. "A film that features an African-American female in the lead I think is a very important and significant thing."
There are even more elements to the film that make the cast proud. "It's also about the community that rallies around Akeelah," Angela says.
Laurence highlights that Akeelah and the Bee "reflects the [African-American] community in a positive way that doesn't deal with the negative stereotypes."
"I'm just so thrilled it's not about a pimp or a ho or a rapper," Oprah says. "I just love it."
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