2020, NR, 117 min. Directed by John Leguizamo. Starring John Leguizamo, Rachel Bay Jones, Michael Kenneth Williams, Corwin C. Tuggles, Jorge Lendeborg Jr..
REVIEWED By Matthew Monagle, Fri., Sept. 11, 2020
Chess can be a game that opens doors. Unlike athletics programs – which require you to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on equipment and training – the game of chess offers students a low-cost barrier to entry and a valuable assortment of analytical skills. But in the hands of director John Leguizamo, stepping behind the camera for the first time since 2003’s HBO boxing drama Undefeated, chess also becomes an allegory for every historically white space in need of a little revolution.
So goes Critical Thinking, his new film based on the real-life success of the Miami Jackson High School chess team. Ever since he was a kid, Sedrick (Tuggles) has played chess. What began as games against his father (Williams) has become an academic obsession – Sedrick is the ringleader for his school’s Chess elective, a course taught by the beleaguered Mr. Martinez (Leguizamo). Sedrick and his friends prove themselves capable of competing at the highest levels, but with funding at Miami Jackson High School scarce, it will take a lot of hard work – and a little bit of generosity from the right people – to help Sedrick and his friends raise the funds they need to compete against their regional and state rivals.
Like any other film about athletics or academics, Critical Thinking harkens back to a long-standing tradition of high school docudramas. We have seen a version of this story countless times before: One compassionate teacher inspires a group of low-income students to overcome the odds and bring home the gold. What makes this film different are the little touches that Leguizamo and screenwriter Dito Montiel add to make this narrative both contemporary and inclusive. There is no scene where Sedrick and his friends must be coerced to enjoy chess; each of them has played since they were children, and they own both their passion for the game and their drive to learn more about its history.
This historical element is a major focus of Leguizamo’s film. Mr. Martinez may teach his students the conventional history of chess – including the Russian and Eastern European grandmasters – but he also makes time for the non-white chess players who have been written out of the official history. “We people of color have been everywhere since time immemorial,” he tells his students, reinforcing again and again that they belong at these tournaments as much as the private school standouts. In other words, chess has never catered exclusively to white players, and the success of the Miami Jackson team can and should be treated as something less than revolutionary.
But these competing concepts – a conventional underdog narrative and a desire to treat a group of talented Black and Hispanic chess players as anything but a novelty – can sometimes make Critical Thinking feel fragmented beyond repair. The film ends with a few unresolved storylines, leaving more questions than answers about the escape chess truly offers the students of Miami Jackson. Instances of emotional abuse or drug violence may highlight the challenges that Sedrick and his friends face every day, but they sometimes sit at odds with the academic competition at the heart of the film. It is to say whether the film should have committed more or less to the storylines; all one can say for sure is that the non-chess sequences lack the balance and nuance of the classroom.
Still, even at its most rote, Critical Thinking captures the appeal of chess without defaulting to a white perspective of these students. It may be overly familiar at times, but just like the game of chess itself, sometimes it’s the smallest moves that end up making the biggest difference.