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Keke Palmer celebrates ‘real-life Akeelah,’ spelling bee champ Zaila Avant-garde

A young girl standing in front of a panel of judges and a large seated audience.
Keke Palmer as spelling prodigy Akeelah Anderson in 2006’s “Akeelah and the Bee.”
(Lionsgate Films)

Actor Keke Palmer, who captivated audiences as national spelling bee champion Akeelah Anderson in the film “Akeelah and the Bee,” has joined thousands in celebrating Zaila Avant-garde, who recently became the first Black American to win the coveted title in real life.

“THE REAL LIFE AKEELAH YOU GUYS!! The real life one,” Palmer wrote Thursday on Instagram. “I’m so happy in my heart. A couple of weeks ago I sent in a video encouraging all the contestants and for this to happen just feels so spiritual! I am so happy.”

In 2006, a young Palmer drew rave reviews for her breakout performance as an 11-year-old spelling prodigy from South Los Angeles in Doug Atchinson’s “Akeelah and the Bee.”

With help from her coach, played by Laurence Fishburne, and her mother, played by Angela Bassett, Palmer’s Akeelah rose above her more privileged competitors to make her mark on the Scripps National Spelling Bee stage in Washington, D.C.

Veteran actor Tzi Ma, who appeared in “Akeelah and the Bee” as the father of Akeelah’s co-champion, also tweeted, “So proud! Congrats!” in reaction to Avant-garde’s historic win.

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Zaila Avant-garde is the first African American winner of Scripps National Spelling Bee

“Major love to Doug Atchinson that allowed me to act a dream and thank God for letting me live to see it come to fruition,” Palmer, 27, continued on Instagram before citing an inspirational quote from the beloved family film.

“‘Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate..’ y’all know the rest,” she wrote. (Featured in the movie is a full excerpt from author and 2020 presidential candidate Marianne Williamson’s “A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of a Course in Miracles”: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate,” Palmer’s Akeelah recites in the film.)

“Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. ... We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? ... We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. ... And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”

A girl wearing a yellow shirt
Zaila Avant-garde, 14, reacts after correctly spelling a word during the finals of the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee in Florida.
(John Raoux / Associated Press)

No one shined brighter this week than 14-year-old Avant-garde, who clinched the 2021 national spelling bee crown Thursday with one final word: “Murraya,” a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees. M-U-R-R-A-Y-A.

“That is correct!” exclaimed one of the judges, as confetti rained down on Avant-garde, who jumped and twirled with joy.

The Louisiana teen, now the second Black winner in the bee’s 96-year history, is also a basketball phenom who aspires to play in the WNBA and holds three Guinness world records for simultaneous dribbling, bouncing and juggling, according to the New York Times and the Associated Press.

“Now I get to get a nice trophy,” Avant-garde told ESPN, “which is the best part of any win.”


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