Monday, November 13, 2006

Akeelah and the Bobby Fischer: Bring It

Finally caught Akeelah and the Bee on DVD, which I was anticipating as another in a long line of narratives equating success in a game or sport with emotional maturity, a theme powerfully manifested in the 1993 film Searching for Bobby Fischer (although for a darker and more literal version, check out Fresh, from one year later).

If you never saw Searching for Bobby Fischer, I highly recommend it. It's the story, based on the life of Josh Waitzkin, about a young boy who discovers he has the potential to become a chess prodigy. He trains with a strict but caring mentor (Ben Kingsley) to develop his skills and enter the world of competitive play. But his own story is paralleled with that of the title character, the young chess champion who, after several high-profile matches against top seeded grand masters, drops out of public view (and emerges later as a raving anti-Semite). (Spoiler Alert) In the championship match that ends the movie Josh offers a draw to his nemesis when he could have easily won. By losing the game Josh preserves a quality of childhood innocence and masters something more important than the game itself: compassion.

Flash forward to 2005's Akeelah and the Bee, which follows the earlier film almost note for note. The big differences being that its hero is a poor young black girl, and the competition is the Scripps National Spelling Bee rather than a chess championship. (Spoiler Alert Again). Now, it would be unfair to expect the protagonist in this context to lose. If games in these stories are supposed to teach the adolescent something they don't already know, that would be pointless. Akeelah has already learned about losing: she lost her father to random violence, her mother works seemingly nonstop to support them, and her brother is a burgeoning gangster. What she lacks is the confidence to win.

Furthermore, protagonists in movies about minorities are often designed (for better or for worse) to stand in for their entire ethnic group. This is especially true of Akeelah, whose training in spelling is accompanied by a lesson in the history of the civil rights movement. For Akeelah to throw the game might impart a lesson that, for black communities, politeness is more important than advancement, which would seem wrong for sure. But something still felt too easy about the ending. In fact, Akeelah does attempt to throw the game, but her opponent (an Asian-American super-nerd stereotype) doesn't let her. Instead, working together they spell all of the 25 final round words and are both crowned champions. Akeelah wins, but nobody has to lose. They don't beat each other, they beat the game. Everybody's happy.

This pop cultural treatment of racial politics is also reminiscent of cheerleading flick Bring It On (2000), which pits white suburban princesses against black inner city challengers in its all-important competition. But in that film, the competition between the two groups is less central to the plot than the struggles within each group. The rich girls must learn to innovate without stealing moves from their urban counterparts. Meanwhile, the black girls struggle to be recognized by cheerleading officials, and appeal to a powerful black female celebrity (obviously meant to evoke Oprah Winfrey) to sponsor their trip to the finals. As with Akeelah, their appeal takes the form of a plea for community solidarity while subtly exploiting the rhetoric of victimization. The "lessons" the black girls must learn are political--—how to manipulate media and cultural identity for power--—and personal--to overcome resentment of their reformed white competitors. The "lessons" the white girls must learn are mostly internal: —to break the cycle of exploitation and (spoiler alert) to be happy with finishing in second place.

These films reflect and address a new American reality: in many urban areas Caucasians are or will soon be in the minority in relation to all other races. The filmmakers use seemingly innocuous high school competitions to model the real conflicts lurking within this reconfigured political landscape.