For his theatrical film directing debut actor John Leguizamo took on the real-life inspirational story of a group of students at an inner city Miami school who joined a class to learn chess and ended up winning the 1998 U.S. National Chess Championship. Leguizamo also plays the teacher Mr. Martinez who is equal parts mentor, teacher, and cheerleader for the team. It’s a familiar underdog story, but it works. You’re pulling for this rag-tag team all the way.
The group are mostly black and brown kids. Mostly male. (There are girls in the class, but they’re not part of the story.) Some have harsh backstories. One kid has a father who’s given up on life since his wife died. Another gave up his job to go to a tournament, forcing him to got to work for an evil drug dealer to make ends meet. But they’re a solid group of friends, there for each other and you can see how wonderful it is for them to have something they’re not only good at, but that breaks the stereotype of what they’re supposed to be good at.
Mr. Martinez loves his job, and even though he isn’t supposed to be talking about racial justice in his class he does point out that even if chess is “the great equalizer,” white always opens, and black has to be on the defensive. And while the class is nominally about chess, he quotes Neruda poetry and educates the kids about life in ways that the principal might not appreciate if she was listening outside the door.
The build to the final tournament is totally engaging. You can see the kids grow as players both individually and as a team. Leguizamo put together a great ensemble with his young cast and they deliver! It’s definitely an audience pleaser of a movie and I recommend it to wide audiences. You’ll learn a thing or two about the game, too.
For Mainstream Chick’s take on Critical Thinking, check out this edition of the Cinema Clash podcast: