Almost 11 years ago (feel old?), the movie Akeelah and the Bee was released as an ode to spelling bees and #blackgirlmagic everywhere. But some people weren’t thrilled about the how the film represented certain groups. Jen and Sam talk about whether the critcism was warranted. SPOILERS.
Correction: In this podcast, Samantha says that Uhura was dating Spock in the original Star Trek. This isn’t true. BUT, that famous kiss between Uhura and Kirk was originally supposed to be between Uhura and Spock.
All about Archetypes
Archetypes in film are great, and very useful. If we see a man put on a ski mask and head into a convenience store, we know what he’s about to do. Archetypes are a way to communicate personality, motivations, and probable roles with little exposition. They can even be used to set up a twist: How cool would it be if ski mask guy just went into the store, scared the crap out of the clerk, and just bought his groceries like a normal person?
But filmmakers can run into trouble when their archetypes are based on racial stereotypes. That’s what had some people in the black and Asian communities upset when they watched Akeelah and the Bee.
Reality vs Aspiration
Should we make movies with representations that we want to see, or with representation of the world as it is?
We never come up with a solid answer for this. The truth is that both are needed.
You need to not be afraid to show things as they are, but never assume that your perspective is the “right” one. Not to get all postmodern here, but when you observe a situation or a person, you’re only observing one aspect of them. Don’t assume you understand a person or event completely just because that aspect fits a stereotype.
The writer of the film chose to make Akeelah and Javier the main characters because he attended a spelling bee and noticed the lack of low income children in attendance. That’s aspirational representation, and it’s beautiful.
Is your film’s representation of a certain group adding something to the plot, or is it just repeating stereotypes?Click to tweet
“Tiger Parents” and a Racist Asian Dad
The father of the film’s main antagonist is a pretty stereotyical Tiger Dad. Samantha and Jen were unoffended by this for the most part, but there is a moment where he calls Akeelah a “silly black girl.” It’s unfortunate that the filmmakers chose to introduce racism by ascribing it to another minority character. But overall, we feel that it serves to humanize the boy when he’s being berated by his father.
This is a good moment where the filmmakers could have asked: What is being gained by the father’s racism? (We argue: not much, if anything. It can go.) What is being gained by the father’s treatment of the boy? (We argue: turning an antagonist from an archetype to a more three dimensional character, and paving the way for Akeelah to befriend him. It can stay.)
There are gang members in this film. Some people felt that showing gang members in the film was unnecessary, and that it was a way of stereotyping the black community. Jen argues that it was nice that the gang members were more developed than other films’ portrayal of your garden variety juvenile delinquents. The gang members in the film, who are definitely perceived as a threat when they try to recruit Akeelah’s brother, are soften when they support Akeelah in the Bee later in the movie.
This shift in their portrayal actually foreshadows the character development of Akeelah’s main antagonist in the spelling bee later in the film.
Using rhythm as a mnemonic. Too stereotypical?
In Akeelah and the Bee, Akeelah uses rhythm to remember how to spell words. This ruffled a few feathers, because it’s a long-held stereotype that African Americans are naturally more skilled rhythmically. Some critics believed that showing Akeelah using this strategy undermined her intelligence by showing her reliance on something that was long believed to be primitively instinctual in African Americans.
Jen, who has experience as a competitive kid spelling whiz, says that this is a common strategy for learning how to spell words for children of all ethnicities. So it’s unfair to criticize the film for showing that.
Zoe Saldana… again.
We love talking about Zoe Saldana. No one knows why. She unsurprisingly made her way into the conversation about the representation of women in film. She often plays characters that don’t add much to the plot of the film. In Star Trek, for example, everything that her character Uhura tries to accomplish is undone (read: effed up) by her male counterparts. Her personal conflicts are all tied to her love interest, Spock.
We would like to see an adaptation about Uhura the galaxy-traveling Xenolinguist and have boring Kirk and Spock in the background.
Zoe has a much better role in Guardians of the Galaxy, but not by much. It would be great if Guardians of the Galaxy was told more from Gamora’s perspective as well. After all, we know much more about her background than any of the other characters.
Resources mentioned in this podcast, and further reading:
- Zoe Saldana’s film about autism
- Here are some critical articles of Akeelah and the Bee, so you can see that we’re not making it all up: