Spelling bees — and in particular the Scripps National Spelling Bee — have a unique place in American culture, especially since 1994, when ESPN started televising the finals with coverage akin to an NBA playoff game. Although we’ve seen terrific documentaries about the spelling bee before, e.g., “Spellbound” from 2003, the new Netflix documentary “Spelling the Dream” is a fresh take on the competition, focusing largely on the phenomenon of Indian-American dominance over the last quarter-century.
Prior to Nupur Lala winning the 1999 Bee, competitors of South Asian descent had won only two of the previous 71 competitions. Since that time, they have become the dominant force, winning 15 more times, including the last 12 years in a row (Erin Howard shared the 2019 title with seven other competitors, all Indian Americans). The film explores the hows and the whys of group’s supremacy.
Much like Spellbound, Spelling the Dream goes into detail about the journeys of four children on their way to the 2017 Scripps National Spelling Bee. However, the film complements their stories with interviews featuring a variety of prominent Indian Americans, including Dr. Sanjay Gupta, journalist Fareed Zakaria, comedian Hari Kondabolu, and more.
“[There’s this notion] that it’s somehow genetic or even ethnic,” says journalist and TV commentator Fareed Zakaria, “but the Indians who do well in spelling bees in America are drawn from Indians who were very adventurous and decided to take advantage of the relaxation of immigration laws in 1965.”
As the documentary explains, the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act lifted discrimination against non-European ethnic groups, but with the caveat the first to be admitted would be the most educated and successful individuals who could provide a monetary value to the USA. Engineers and doctors and other professionals from India came to America — and gave birth to a generation of children with access to the high quality education.
For the most part, “Spelling the Dream” follows the traditional competition-documentary formula of such films as “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters” (2007) and last year’s “Foosballers” in that we’re introduced to a handful of talented hopefuls and follow their paths to the national stage. We hear from former champions who are now adults and speak of how spelling bees were the first vehicles that made them feel as if they belonged to a community and weren’t different from everyone else their age.
As for criticism that spelling bees put too much pressure on young children and mastering half the dictionary doesn’t have any real-world practicality: The families as depicted in this documentary seem very well-adjusted and aware of perspective. And it’s hard to see the difference between the millions of families who encourage their kids to play on multiple traveling sports teams for years on end, when only a tiny percentage of them will ever get a full ride to college, let alone turn pro. (Chicago.suntimes.com)