While examining these films, it cannot go without mention that
a common trend when searching for academically superlative students
in the movies is that many of these roles in recent films are cast with
female actors, even in the genre of comedy, which has historically been
more weighted toward the masculine. In Mean Girls, Legally Blonde, and
Clueless (1995), the featured students who appear to be superlative in
their academic and intellectual pursuits are female. When reflecting on
teacher films from the twentieth century onward, the majority of
academically superlative student roles were filled by young males with
very few strong female students represented in the classroom. It is
interesting to note that more and more films are featuring strong female
leads as characters of substance.
With regard to the two other kinds of teachers often paired with
an academically superlative student, many films depict teachers who
function as tutors and others focus on teachers in the role of coaches.
Both types of representation seek to grow the student’s demonstrated
natural skill or talent and to instruct the student to a higher level of
success in these specialized fields. The good teacher as a tutor works
with a student who shows promise in a field of academic study to push
the student’s knowledge capacity, such as Ms. Norbury’s work with
Cady’s to capitalize on her high mathematical capability, while the coach
aims to teach the student how to improve a demonstrated talent outside
of the classroom. Films such as Akeelah and the Bee (2006) and The Great
Debaters (2007) both exemplify the latter model.
In Akeelah and the Bee, the naturally talented speller Akeelah
Anderson (Keke Palmer) is pushed by English professor Dr. Larabee
(Laurence Fishburne) to hone her innate spelling skills in a more
regimented way, ultimately taking her from a win at her small school’s
spelling bee to a shared National Spelling Bee Champion title. It is his
personalized lessons and tried and true tricks of the trade that guide her
to victory. In The Great Debaters, which takes place during the racially
charged 1930s in a small Texas town, debate coach Melvin Tolson
(Denzel Washington) hand picks a collegiate debate team, challenging
the debaters in this biopic with different, unique exercises that
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