Angry Letters: ‘Akeelah and the Bee’

Here’s what happens when you write a negative review of a movie that shows African-Americans in a positive light: You get e-mails from people calling you a racist. (Ripping on a movie that portrays blacks negatively elicits no response whatsoever.)

Sure enough, last weekend’s “Akeelah and the Bee” — a harmless but generic, overdone family film about a spelling bee champ — drew some criticism from readers. First, Jeff writes in to say this:

Boy, did you miss the boat on this review. Time does not permit me to tell you where your review missed the boat. [Translation: If I think too hard about it, I’ll realize the only “problem” with your review is that I disagreed with it. So I’m not going to think too hard about it.]

BTW, I seem to notice, for whatever it’s worth, that you RARELY give a positive review to Afircan-American themed films… What’s up with that?

I replied:

I dunno … Most of them have sucked lately?

Truly, I judge films based on their individual merits, not on the race of the people involved. I dislike lots of movies starring white people, too.

I think the real problem is that there are very, very few black directors and writers with any clout in Hollywood, and only a handful of actors. There are probably a lot of good African-American-themed movies that COULD be made, if it weren’t for the politics (and no doubt some racism) that prevent the writers and directors from making them.


As I was writing that response, however, Jeff was perusing my site and firing off another complaint:

I think I got clarification on how you do your reviews. Damn, you gave Zoolander an A and Crash only got a C+?

Tell me this is voluntary work. Please don’t tell me you actually get PAID for your reviews.

My response to him:

Damn, you gave Zoolander an A and Crash only got a C+?

I also really liked that apple, while I didn’t care much for that orange.

The films have two entirely different goals. “Crash” wants to provoke thought about racism but comes off as heavy-handed and self-important. “Zoolander” wants to mock the modeling world and provoke laughter, and it does it successfully. (That said, I was a bit hasty with that A grade. It should have gotten maybe a B+.)

Tell me this is voluntary work. Please don’t tell me you actually get PAID for your reviews.

Let me guess: If I agreed with you more often, THEN I would be worthy of getting paid? I’ll pass that along to the people who pay me….

Amazingly, he then responded with this:

Touche’…I deserved that! Sorry.

Props to admitting you went overboard! I respect that.

Speaking of respect, next is someone I don’t. Margaret Opine writes:

I came to this site because of the opening line in your review. But when I read your review I found another line:

“I question whether any parent — especially one whose other child is flirting with gang activity — would be ANGRY that her daughter was competing in spelling bees. But I guess inspiring, ennobling stories of dedication and triumph have to have obstacles, so Mom is obligated by the mechanics of the plot to be one.”

Welll, don’t question any more; let me educate you on REAL life which does seem to be missing in your worldview including the introduction to “snide remarks.” [For the record, I don’t know what “introduction” to “Snide Remarks” she’s talking about. Unless she means the first paragraph of this week’s column, which is featured on the front page of the site.] (FYI– it is a compliment to your writing that you can inflame people; it is good marketing but all that will die out soon enough because there is very little weight to squabbles and frustration.) [Thanks, Yoda.] Anyway, let me tell you want I want you to learn.

If you take 100 Moms and there is an Akeelah and a spelling bee:
A full quarter of them will be just like the character in the movie.
Another quarter will be like the character but they will not give in; they will take her off the stage and she will never return to it.
Another quarter will not even know there is a stage or know what a bee is.
Only one quarter, and that’s stretching it, [Actually, if the other three categories are each one-quarter, then this last category would HAVE to be a full quarter, unless there’s a fifth group you’re not mentioning] will know how important the Bee is to the child, take a full interest like a “soccer Mom”, be at every Bee, check the background of the teachers, and have their children in a better school and neighborhood.

My point is this: whether in suburbia, whether in Manhattan or whether in South Central or Queens, there are mothers who are depressed, jealous of their daughters, on drugs, alcohol, working too many jobs and feeling under-loved and motivated themselves and some of those moms on the edge are soccer moms. So, if you have lived a fairy-tale life so far and that’s your reference, be grateful, thank the universe — it won’t last forever. Sooner or later you will have to deal with REAL life. [Evidently, moms who are jealous of their children and/or who are alcoholics are “real life,” while my own mother is some kind of imaginary, mythical character.]

Oh, by the way, you’re a racist. You seem to see this movie as something that has been done before . . .and not realize that it is a human story (with all those humans in it) but then you claim this is JUST an African American story. No, it’s still human and some A. Americans starred in it.

This is an education; I hope you comprehend it well. There will be a Bee for you to compete in. (smile)

You know, I was OK up until the end. I said Akeelah’s mom was unrealistic; she says she’s more realistic than I realize. Fine. I can concede that such baffling behavior (not wanting your kid to participate in a spelling bee) might happen in real life.

But then we come to the end of the e-mail, where she continues her “education” of me by informing me that I’m a racist. And that’s what I responded to:

Oh, by the way, that’s ridiculous. I don’t even MENTION race in the review until the last paragraph, when I say the movie is commendable for showing inner-city African-Americans in a positive light, instead of the way movies usually portray them. NOWHERE do I say, or even imply, that the movie is “just an African-American story.” If it were, wouldn’t I have mentioned race somewhere else in the review, and not as an afterthought in the last paragraph?

The story is generic and has been done before, but that has nothing to do with the race of the characters.


Here’s where it gets good. Margaret replies:


I told you to get an education from me. Your response reads like my children when they pout from being criticized, reliably so.

ALLLLLLLLLLLL of the movies we see have been done before. Every last one of them. It’s called a genre and all the genres can be reduced to something thousands of years old, even older than the Iliad and the Odyssey. Like I said, a human story. Inner City tales have been told for the box office — make money or deliver a message, fall in love or terrorize somebody. Everybody does it, even: “Munich” and “Schindler’s List” — those are “inner-city” stories too based on historics and the list goes on and on. But here, in racist America, in post-manumission times, [manumission: the act of freeing a slave or slaves] just 141 years on the other side of centuries of atrocity and just forty years on the other side of Civil Rights, people who have been held from reading and writing, people who have been held from enterprising, such as movie-making, are trying their hand at it. They are performing their view of hopes and dreams for better tomorrows. They are falling in love, having sex, making people laugh at our human condition and terrorizing too. That’s it really . . . that’s it; that is all there is, really!

The role that Angela performed was new: it demonstrated what was the old and introduced the transition to the new. The old was shown, demonstratively, and the new was shown demonstratively so that people can see the truth of our lives. And one of those truths is: When we know better, we do better but knowing is often directly paralleling with what we are able to earn.

Now . . . stop pouting and learn something (from me, I’m a teacher) and grow into 21st century mentality. Stop leaning on the “race” thing to qualify things. . .because inner-city nuances are not just A. American nuances; they are nuances attain from living in the city. But I can say this though: the impact may be about the same, similarly, but the response won’t be. Now that’s where ‘ethnicity’ comes in but it won’t match a color chart.

(If you have no idea what the last couple of sentences mean, you’re not alone.)

I believe there are times when a person needs to be shown how full of crap they are, when the high-and-mighty need to be taken down a few pegs. I considered this one of those times.

My response:

Well, I can say this for you: You definitely win the prize for most pretentious and condescending e-mail of the month.

I’m aware of what genres are, and I’m aware that most stories have been told before in some way. The good movies, however, manage to make old
material seem fresh. They infuse new life into familiar situations and characters “Akeelah and the Bee” does not do this. It repeats every cliché, every plot point and every character without variation or originality.

But here, in racist America, in post-manumission times, just 141 years on the other side of centuries of atrocity and just forty years on the other side of Civil Rights, people who have been held from reading and writing, people who have been held from enterprising, such as movie-making, are trying their hand at it.

All of this is true enough … and yet it has nothing to do with what we’re talking about. Unless your point is that since blacks have been oppressed for so long, we ought to cut them some slack and like their movies just because they went to the trouble of making them, whether they’re any good or not. But I know you’re too smart and sensible — you’re a teacher, after all!!!! — to adhere to that immature, racist way of thinking. (See, I can throw words like “racist” around, too. And to suggest that “black films” should be given a pass because their creators have endured such struggles is belittling and reductive to black people.)

Stop leaning on the “race” thing to qualify things.

Once again, I hate to point this out, especially when it’s YOU who are supposed to be teaching ME, but YOU’RE the one who brought up race as an issue. The only place I mentioned it in my review was in passing, as an afterthought. In the main body of the review, the characters’ race had no bearing on my assertions. So why don’t YOU stop leaning on race, and stop looking for racism where it doesn’t exist.

Oh, and stop pouting, too. (I’m using your definition of “pouting,” which seems to be “disagreeing with me.”)

So far, there have been no additional replies. I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, enjoy “Akeelah and the Bee,” brought to you by Starbucks!