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Akeelah Anderson (Keke Palmer) is a precocious 11-year-old girl from south Los Angeles with a gift for words. Despite the objections of her mother Tanya (Angela Bassett), she enters spelling contests for which she is tutored by a local college professor (Laurence Fishburne), her principal (Curtis Armstrong) and several neighbors who are inspired by her courage and determination. When she wins a place at the Scripps National Spelling Bee, the hopes of all her community are with her in the Final. Written and directed by Doug Atchison.

 Akeelah and the Bee

The phone call went something like this: “There’s a director who wants to direct your script, and we want to work with him. You’ve been trying to get this movie made for a long time. I know you want to direct it, but no studio is going to let you do that. So why don’t you sell it to us, put some money in your pocket, and your script will get made.”

This was a studio executive calling me at my house three years ago. How she got my home number, I don’t know. She probably avoided my agents because she didn’t want to hear a sales pitch about why I should get a chance to direct my own screenplay.

The script was Akeelah and the Bee. It’s about a little girl from South Los Angeles who competes to get into the National Spelling Bee. It had won a pretty substantial screenwriting contest a couple of years earlier, and there had been significant interest in the script since. After having spent many years struggling to make it as a filmmaker, the prospect of major producers and studios wanting to buy my work was both tantalizing and troubling. Tantalizing because I sure did need the money. Troubling, however, because I just couldn’t bear to let someone else direct this script.

I had gone to the USC film school, directed a bunch of short films, and even had an indie feature under my belt, one that I’d partially financed on my credit cards. I thought the work was pretty solid, but obviously not enough to persuade the folks who greenlight movies to give me a shot at directing Akeelah. They wanted to buy my script. But they didn’t want me.

So why was I being so stubborn? Why didn’t I just sell it and let it get made? Because there was a bigger issue: my suspicion that if I simply sold the script to any studio, they would alter the story in a drastic way. Why did I think they might do this?

Because they told me they would.

“The mentor character needs to be white.”

That’s what I was told time and time again. The main character of the story is Akeelah Anderson. She’s 11 years old, and she’s black. She goes to an inner-city school where she doesn’t get points from her peers for being smart. She hides her intelligence and refuses to participate in the spelling bee circuit, lest her secret be revealed. That is until a college professor named Dr. Larabee encourages Akeelah to own up to her own abilities and be proud of who she is and what she can do.

Dr. Larabee is also black. And he’s from Akeelah’s neighborhood. These two aspects of his character were, for me, critical to Akeelah’s story. The odds for anyone getting to and winning the National Spelling Bee are like ten million to one. For Akeelah to have the confidence to even take a shot at something like this, she needed a real role model. One who looked like her. And came from her world.

She needed Dr. Larabee to be who he is.

But, for the most part, production executives wanted Dr. Larabee to be a white guy (or gal) coming in from the suburbs to save the little black girl from the “hood.” To me this was cliché and insulting. And I just couldn’t do it.

This made getting Akeelah to the silver screen seem like an almost impossible task.

That is until a company named Lionsgate came along. They were willing to let me take the directorial reins. They also listened to why I wanted to keep the character of Dr. Larabee as written and agreed with my reasoning.

So back to that phone call I got from the studio exec several years ago. After she made her pitch, I earnestly tried to convince her to at least meet with me to discuss the possibility of directing my own movie.

“No,” she said, “I’m only calling to buy your script. Not for you to direct it. That’s not how this movie will get made.”

I wish I’d responded with something like, “I will get this movie made and I’ll invite you to the premiere.” But instead I just politely declined her offer, listened to her exhale in frustration, and never heard from her again.

So, Lionsgate is releasing Akeelah and the Bee, starring Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett and Keke Palmer. I got to direct it.

And Dr. Larabee stayed black.