Student Life Archives (2001-2008)

Akeelah and the Bee: An Interview with Doug Atchison

Doug Atchison has just finished a radio interview in the corner. He walks over to where I am sitting ready to go again, still excited to be answering the same questions he must have heard a thousand times today. But he has every reason to be excited. His movie “Akeelah and the Bee” is getting the same treatment from its production company, Lion’s Gate, that it gave to “Crash” last year.

“I’ve been spoiled,” says Doug about his experience with Lion’s Gate, which is the last independently owned major production company. “We didn’t have a lot of money but creatively, they were great. When I came into the meeting after the first screening I had ten times more notes than they had.”

“Akeelah and the Bee,” Doug’s second movie, follows the story of a young girl in South Los Angeles who has a natural talent for spelling but is afraid to assert herself intellectually in front of ridiculing classmates. She ends up getting pushed into the spelling bee circuit by a principal who wants a little notoriety for a terribly under-funded school. Doug got the idea while flipping channels in 1994, the year ESPN first aired the Scripps National Spelling Bee. “I was channel surfing and I came upon these kids spelling. You just get sucked in by these kids and you start rooting for them. I look up and I’ve been watching it for three and a half hours. I knew there was a movie here,” Doug explained. However he didn’t start on the actual script until four years later. “I just thought someone else would do it first. But every year came around and I watched these kids and there was no movie.”

At this point, two movies have beaten him to the finish line, but Doug doesn’t seem too worried about that. “This is a sports movie. The thing people keep saying about it is that it’s sincere.” Doug, who was born in Detroit and grew up in Arizona, worked in a youth center in L.A. to get the kids’ attitudes right in his movie. “I went to USC film school which is in south Los Angeles, and I knew people from this neighborhood. But working in this center I got a much better sense for how these kids talk,” the director commented. Akeelah, in the film, is called names whenever she gets the answers right in class and Doug says this drew from experiences he had. “Do you know what some of the children say about kids who do well in school? They say they are ‘acting white.’ Now what is it about being successful and intelligent that has anything to do with being white?” He wanted to show the fear that causes these children, who already have hurdles, to start doubting themselves. “Akeelah has low expectations for herself. But she rises above fear and her negative self-image.”

Akeelah is played by rising star Keke Palmer, who lives in the role and embodies the strengths and frustrations of a girl who the community starts to count on once she starts winning. “Keke would say that it took me so long to get the movie made, because I had to wait for her to be eleven,” Doug said, “We were on this collision course.” He cast many kids who were not actors in the roles because he wanted an authenticity. “We saw plenty of precocious kids, but they were too old in how they acted. We got a lot of kids who had never acted before. We strove to do that. We didn’t want actor kids.”

In the film, Akeelah gets coaching from Dr. Joshua Larabee, played by Laurence Fishburne, and he teaches her not only how to spell, but why words are important. This is an issue that “Spellbound,” an otherwise fantastic documentary about the spelling bee, doesn’t address. “Good spellers can memorize the words. But the best spellers learn what they mean. They learn how to break words down,” Doug explained. Dr. Larabee has Akeelah read before teaching her any memorization so he can teach her that words have power. “He looks at Akeelah as a potential leader. He wants her to understand her history. She needs to know the importance of language – and competition.”

Doug is thrilled about his movie, happy that Lion’s Gate let him direct when others just wanted the script, but nervous about how people will see the previews of the movie. “It’s good to show to the movie goers. We just need to find a way to get them in the theater.” He’s getting a release on 2000 screens when it opens April 28. Not bad for a guy who funded his first movie “The Pornographer” on credit cards and borrowed money. Doug explained, “That (‘The Pornographer’) was about proving I could make a commercially successful movie. I could handle a budget. I sold it to cable and everyone made their money back. The subject matter was what it was to get the movie sold. ‘Akeelah and the Bee;’ that is my passion movie.”

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