Title: Brooklyn Castle
Director: Katie Dellamaggiore
An Audience Award winner at this year’s SXSW Film Festival, documentary “Brooklyn Castle” is, in the mold of fellow nonfiction flicks of emotional uplift like “Spellbound,” “Jig” and “Make Believe: The Battle to Become the World’s Best Teen Magician,” a movie about kids reaching for dreams, and discovering the causal relationship between hard work and self-betterment. In this case it’s not spelling, dancing or sleight of hand that’s under the sub-cultural microscope, but instead chess, by way of an influential and successful after-school program at a New York City public school.
A Brooklyn pilot school (meaning its students have to means-test into it) where more than two-thirds of the students live below the federal poverty level, I.S. 318 has the highest ranked junior high chess team in the country and a record of excellence which they have sustained for decades, piling up 30 national championships. Overseen by teacher/coach Elizabeth Spiegel and assistant principal and program coordinator John Galvin, the club serves as an important academic extracurricular activity, helping keep its approximately 85 members busy after school, and focused on lateral thinking and problem-solving.
Director Katie Dellamaggiore’s film takes a very conventional chronological tack, charting the team through the lens of a handful of members as they prepare for national competitions and simultaneously deal with looming, drastic budget cuts that threaten the continued existence of the program. Rochelle has the goal of becoming the first African-American female chess master; the charismatic Pobo runs for student body president and takes the school’s financial crisis very personally; 11-year-old Justus learns to manage his extraordinarily high skill level with the crushing disappointment attached to every loss; Patrick finds chess helps with his ADHD; and the game Alexis nonetheless feels the pressure of his immigrant parents’ desire for him to go to college.
Most of the kids here are articulate beyond their years, but Dellamaggiore also locates their latent vulnerability, which makes for an affecting experience that pulls the viewer along, and helps “Brooklyn Castle” more or less triumph over some of its more programmatic aspects. Chess is a proxy, of course, a stand-in for perhaps some of the soundest and most important advice not frequently taught in middle and high school — that answers in life are not always immediately clear, that a deeper analysis is required. While math, history and other disciplines necessarily rest on less subjective facts, chess has both style and rhythms to go along with its rules.
It’s for this reason, Spiegel opines, “the fact that it’s not the direction society (at large) is going,” that maybe chess is more valuable as an educational tool than merely a diversionary game or hobby. In pursuing a deeper interest in and focus upon chess, students learn to think in ways both methodical and abstract, and also stand to reap the future dividends of expectations and pressure. It’s easy to fall prey to cynicism, but in its spotlighting of kids, teachers and parents working hard and together in the face of tough circumstances, “Brooklyn Castle” provides a snapshot of indomitable American can-do attitude, and gives one hope.
NOTE: For more information on the film, visit www.BrooklynCastle.com.
Written by: Brent Simon