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'Akeelah and the Bee' Shines Spotlight on Spelling Bees, Kids Who Compete in Them

Sarcophagus. Dulcimer. Fracas. Xanthosis. Those are words you might not expect every 12-year-old to know; but they are among the words spelled correctly in recent years by winners of the annual National Spelling Bee. A new film spotlights the value of that achievement, especially to a young black girl from the inner city. Alan Silverman has a look at Akeelah and the Bee.

Bright, inquisitive Akeelah is one of the top students at a middle school in the rough inner city neighborhood of South-Central Los Angeles, where scholastic achievement is not always considered a top priority.

But the school principal recognizes her potential and convinces Akeelah to take part in the spelling bee.

That means she can go on to the district-wide bee. The winner of that level goes to a statewide contest; and those top spellers compete in the national bee held annually in Washington, D.C. Her schoolteacher recruits his own mentor - a college professor on sabbatical - to help coach Akeelah and it becomes a relationship that will change her life.

Laurence Fishburne plays the demanding professor Larrabee.

"He definitely demands of her her very, very best and really kind of gets her to understand that's a good place for her to operate from," Fishburne says. " He gets her to step outside her own limitations."

Twelve-year-old Keke Palmer stars in the title role.

"Akeelah had a lot of courage in that part," she says. "I would have been so upset I would have just run out and never come back. A lot of kids would have done that (thinking) 'he's scary, let me leave;' but Akeelah stood up to him and at the same time she did it with respect."

Akeelah and the Bee is written and directed by Doug Atchison, who describes it as "a complete work of fiction, but a work of truth."

Akeelah and the Bee is not really about spelling. For me it's about broader issues than that," he explains. "The spelling is just a venue in which this girl can prove herself and be successful in a world that she's afraid to even enter at first and that people close to her are afraid for her to enter. What we tried to do is find a model for success."

The theme of achievement through education attracted an unusual source of support for this inspirational drama: the Starbucks chain of coffee shops. Producer Sid Ganis explains Akeelah and the Bee is the first project from the new Starbucks Entertainment division.

"They have an initiative within their organization which is a teaching and learning initiative," he says. "So our movie has a relevance to their internal initiative. Every single person who goes into a Starbucks anywhere in the United States and, as I understand it, some of their international businesses, will without question know about Akeelah and the Bee. Every one of their cup holders - and we know that number is 80 million cup holders - has a spelling word on it and talks about Akeelah."

Akeelah and the Bee also co-stars Angela Bassett as the hard working mother who begins to understand that her daughter can make dreams come true. Although Akeelah is fictitious, she represents the hundreds of kids aged 9-16 who take part in the real Scripps National Spelling Bee, which bills itself as America's "largest and longest-running educational promotion." The 79th annual National Spelling Bee takes place in Washington D.C. beginning on May 31.