When I was in the third grade, I was obsessed with words. I spent many hours with my dictionary, learning words like “parsimonious” and annoying my parents and teachers a great deal. In other words, I was a smart, geeky black girl. But while I regularly saw smart geeky white boys on screen, I hardly ever saw girls that looked like me represented in movies or on TV.
This all changed when I watched Akeelah and the Bee, which celebrates the 10th anniversary of its British release today. In the film, 11-year old Akeelah Anderson (Keke Palmer), a student at a predominantly black middle school in a poor neighborhood of south Los Angeles, overcomes her personal trials to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Without a doubt, this film was one of my favorites growing up. Akeelah didn’t just look like me; I felt like she was me. I was very nerdy and I loved to spell. And here was another black girl who liked the same things and was as afraid as I was of being called a “brainiac,” because it just wasn’t cool. Akeelah not only validated my own academic interests, but it opened up new possibilities for me—black girls could win, on a national scale. I learned that I could be visibly smart, and it wasn’t something I had to hide, because I had seen another black girl do the same thing.
When I was growing up, the pain I felt from seeing the lack of brown or black faces on the screen was acute. There have been many important conversations about the need for more diversity and inclusion in film and television, but it’s easy to dismiss the power of representation when you already see yourself represented. With films like Akeelah and the Bee, Dreamgirls, Pariah, and an old favorite, Crooklyn, I slowly started to find a language to talk about the black female experience, in all its forms.
However, Akeelah and the Bee is not without its problems. In many ways, it depicts the African-American community as full of poverty, homelessness, and criminality, depicting black kids as typically unambitious, unless there are exceptional circumstances. Akeelah’s mother is a stereotypical ignorant black mother, too preoccupied with her problems (the death of her husband in this case) to really have the time to focus and nurture her daughter. But, in other ways, the story is inspirational. Towards the end of the film, we see how Akeelah’s community really rallies around her, helping her learn the spelling of words in the grocery store or as she walks to school. The bee brings them together, encouraging the other black kids in the neighborhood to see that they too can be champions. Akeelah’s fight becomes their fight, too. But when I was eight years old, first watching this movie, none of that was apparent to me. All that really mattered was that Akeelah Anderson was a black girl.
In a recent episode of the podcast Another Round, co-host Tracy Clayton calls her own coming of age “unremarkable,” and it is those new, unremarkable stories that we need to tell more about black women. The representation we see in film and on television rarely grants black women the permission to be just “normal”—there is always an element of drama.
One of my favorite moments in Akeelah and the Bee is when young love blossoms between Akeelah and her friend Javier, because we hardly ever see black girls and black women fall in love on screen. It’s no secret that Hollywood has, and has always had, a problem with representation. But perhaps what’s worse is that when black girls are represented, it’s often in a one-dimensional way. The stories that we choose to tell about black girls and women are limited, and that has to change. When black girls “come of age” on screen, it often follows a particularly traumatic event or circumstance, such as abusive parents or rape, and then these characters go on to lead lives marred with strife and struggle. In Akeelah and the Bee, Akeelah has lost her father, lives in a poor neighborhood, and has an emotionally unavailable mother who is trying to hold the family together after the loss of her husband. There are truths to these stories, like there are truths to stereotypes, and they do deserve to be told. But it is highly problematic that the stories of black girls that we tell most often must have pain and trauma at their core.
Ten years on from the release of Akeelah and the Bee, things are slowly improving in terms of the representation of black women on television and in film. This week saw the release of the trailer for Hidden Figures, which focuses on the black female mathematicians that contributed to the space race. In the UK, Cecile Emeke’s comedy web series “Ackee & Saltfish” is being developed for the BBC, exploring the friendship and everyday lives of Olivia and Rachel, two young black women. Channel 4’s Chewing Gum has also been well received. This sitcom follows Tracey Gordon (Michaela Coel), a deeply religious but also deeply Beyoncé-loving 24-year old, as she navigates friendship, sex, and growing up.
But so much more needs to be done to diversify the stories we tell, and to shift the representation of blackness to reflect the African-American experience. We deserve to see real, humane representations of black womanhood on the big screen. Despite its flaws, Akeelah and the Bee allows viewers to see young black girlhood in its purest form.
June Eric-Udorie is an 18 year old writer and feminist campaigner based in London. Her writing has been published in The Guardian, The New Statesman, The Pool, amongst many others. She enjoys writing about race, gender and politics and can be found on Twitter @juneericdorie