Chess saves lives, who knew?
“Brooklyn Castle” follows on the heels of several excellent documentaries that have recently reached local theaters. Like “The Imposter,” “Searching for Sugar Man,” and “A Sister’s Call,” it has the power to convince the documentary neophyte that movies aren’t just about mindless entertainment. (Even though, like the occasional good cheeseburger, something that’s bad for you – fast food filmmaking—can be pretty tasty.)
Katie Dellamaggiore’s wonderful documentary does what all such films should: It elucidates while it educates and inspires audiences through its subject material.
Only those intimately familiar with competitive chess would have any knowledge about the incredible, dominating championship chess titles earned by Intermediate School 318, a public middle school within an impoverished neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. Even more impressive is the fact that these titles have been won predominantly by minority kids who make up a student body where 70 percent of the families are living below the poverty line.
The kids featured in the documentary are the film’s true stars, including Pobo, an oversized, charismatic leader running for student body president whose family immigrated from Nigeria, and Rochelle, who, at 16 is in the process of amassing enough points through grueling tournament play to become the first female African-American chess “master.”
The film depicts the intense process of preparing for competitive, timed chess matches and the struggles of the school to contend with severe budget cuts. In this area, “Brooklyn Castle” does a much better job of illustrating the financial issues than the Hollywood-ized treatment of this year’s previous release “Won’t Back Down,” once again proving the advantage of a well-made documentary.
Surely the film’s heroes are the adult administrators and chess teachers, particularly assistant principal John Galvin and coach Elizabeth Spiegel Vicary, who deserve infinitely more screen time. Questions abound about Vicary’s background and how she was able to develop such a unique skill set (in a male dominated game, no less) to not only teach but inspire these young students to extraordinary levels.
And such inspiration doesn’t just pay off in crowded trophy cases. Nearly all of the kids excel in academics, providing for themselves opportunities in higher education almost unimaginable for most of their fellow students.
Like the game at its center, “Brooklyn Castle” is not exactly a high-energy experience, and could have been 30 minutes shorter without losing any of its impact. But seeing what these kids accomplish seemingly against all odds and witnessing the compassion and dedication of the adults in their lives is breathtaking all the same.