Friday, May 30, 2014

On SPELLBOUND (2002)

A dear friend and neighbor, an executive for Canon, took me to a screening of this 2002 documentary.  Canon contributed to the making of Spellbound.  You might think that a documentary about children competing in the Scripps National Spelling Bee would be light and amusing.  In some parts, it was.  But overall, it was one of the most fascinating, revealing, dramatic and poignant features I'd seen that year.  I connected emotionally to it.  The spelling bee in grade school and middle school was my battlefield.  I was not that skilled at sports on on the playground but, when it came to spelling, I was the warrior that you wanted in your army.  Often, our classroom spelling bees pitted one team against the other.  On the playground, I was often the last to be chosen.  In the spelling bees, I was a popular choice.  I loved those competitions and my teachers knew I loved them.  I saw my young face in many of the faces in Spellbound.
One of the most revealing things about the documentary is the difference between the haves and have nots in America.  Not only the economic difference but the behavioral differences.  The have nots mind the manners.  One youngster, from a financially comfortable home, has a tendency to get on your nerves with his precocious quirks that smack of entitlement.
He's like a ham stage actor who keeps mugging.  Meeting the children in the spelling bee makes us want to meet the parents or guardians in their lives.  This spelling bee is not an easy competition.  It's not like a softball game at recess.  This is tougher.

One segment put tears in my eyes.  There is a sweet African-American girl who qualifies to be in the Scripps National Spelling Bee.  She's an inner city kid.  She doesn't live in a pretty suburban neighborhood.  She's a good kid in tough, financially troubled neighborhood.  At school, the teachers love her and the classmates love her.  She's absolutely precious and she wins your heart.

When she succeeds in qualifying for the spelling bee, her single mother had a serious question for the camera.  She wanted to know where was the press for her daughter?  Where were the local TV cameras asking her daughter how she felt about her scholastic accomplishment?  Where were the newspaper reporters to take interview her?  There were none.  But if that girl had committed a crime, she'd have made local headlines.

That was the part that broke my heart and brought tears to my eyes.  My first TV appearance was on a syndicated nighttime film trivia show called The Movie Game.  The show was shot in Hollywood.  My mother was in the audience.  I was on a special teen edition.  My celebrity teammates were Phyllis Diller and Hugh O'Brian.  My opponent had Dyan Cannon and David Janssen.  I was the show's first black contestant.  At that time, I was also its youngest contestant.  I was 16.  I lived in South Central L.A. and attended a high school in Watts.

I became the first black winner on The Movie Game.  I got no local press attention.  My proud mother said that if I'd committed a crime, I would've gotten press attention.  Just like the mother said of her teen in the 1999 Scripps National Spelling Bee.

In America, it's amazing how some socioeconomic things change -- and how they don't.  The teens in this documentary never come off as oddball dorks.  They're just average kids with a scholastic gift.  The  competition itself, which we see, will really keep you glued to the screen.  It's not dull at all.

Spellbound is worth renting.  Remember, it's not the Alfred Hitchcock classic of the same name.  It's the 2002 documentary.
This year Jason Bateman directed and starred in a comedy called Bad Words.  He plays a spelling bee loser who seeks revenge.  With the help of a lovelorn reporter, he finds a legal way to enter the national spelling bee.
He's cantankerous and verbally rude.  A modern-day Scrooge.  It's a defense against life.  He strikes up an unlikely friendship with a tough little rival in the spelling bee.
This comedy didn't do well at the box office.  Folks missed a fine performance by Bateman.  You can see his character mature.  You discover the broken heart behind his bad words.  There's a reason why he seeks revenge as an adult in the spelling bee.  This comedy was ultimately about the power of words -- how we use them, how we choose to use them, and the power they have.  I liked Bad Words a lot.  And I went into the screening expecting to hate it.  From what I'd seen in the trailer, I thought I was in for something like those silly and juvenile Adam Sandler comedies.  Wrong.  Bad Words has a point and heart that reveal themselves.

Jason Bateman did solid work as an actor and director in this comedy.

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