Pawns are the front-line pieces in the game of chess. Many game openings begin with a push of a pawn forward, and players often overlook pawns for the showy and more powerful pieces that stand behind them. Pawns are almost always the first to take hits from the other side and most eventually get knocked off the board. But with some skill and luck, a player can get one or more of her pawns all the way across the board, taking advantage of the pawn’s potential to become something greater than it was.
Brooklyn Castle is a documentary that looks at a remarkable afterschool chess program, shining a light both on what the club has done and on the threats facing the club in light of ongoing recessionary budget cuts. Brooklyn Castle is also an outstanding example of exactly how a documentary of this type should be put together, using a small story to exemplify a larger societal issue and deftly doing so with emotion and humor. Most importantly, it does so without relentlessly beating the viewer over the head with its message.
The smaller story here is Brooklyn’s Intermediate School 318 (“IS 318”) a junior high school (6th to 8th grade) that is considered the Yankees of chess. Since starting its chess team in the mid-90’s, the school has won over 20 chess titles, more than any other junior high in the country. Chess is such a big deal at IS 318 that the school has a full-time chess teacher, Elizabeth Vicary, and students take the former chess champions’ class up to seven times a week. The team, consisting of over 50 students, is coached by Vicary and assistant principal John Galvin, with surprisingly exuberant support from the school’s principal (the prestige and copious trophies probably help keep him supportive). As Galvin puts it, in IS 318, “the geeks, they are the athletes.”
Over the course of two school years, we meet and follow five students on the team, each compelling in their own way. There’s eighth-grader Rochelle, the school’s best player and the reigning under-16 female champion in the United States (she has a ridiculous rating over 1900, and has the potential to be the first female, African American master if she can get her rating up to 2200). As Rochelle graduates and moves on to high school, she finds it increasingly difficult to devote the time to chess necessary to continue to improve while also doing well enough in school to continue down her planned path of becoming a lawyer (take it from a practicing lawyer, Rochelle — do something else with your smarts and initiative other than going to law school!). One year below her is Alexis, who is also ranked just below while they’re on the team together. Alexis is similarly focused on his studies, hoping to find a successful career that will help him take care of his immigrant parents.
Within the context of chess, the most compelling story is Patrick’s. Unlike the other students, Patrick stinks at chess. He’s ranked very low on the team and while he likes the game, he has trouble with it (in comparison to Rochelle’s 1900 rating, Patrick’s floats around 400 when we meet him). One of the most touching scenes of the whole film comes when we see Vicary spending some down time working with Patrick, trying to help him get better, and talking to the camera about how chess players make leaps in their skill-set. On the other side of the scale from Patrick is Justus, who comes in to the school as a sixth grader during the second year, with a rating higher than Rochelle’s. Justus, a quiet and somewhat introspective type, is practically a chess master at a mere 11-years old. In fact, despite losing Rochelle to high school, we hear that this new team, because of Justus, is slated to be the school’s best ever.
Finally, there’s Pobo, the most all-around compelling character of the group. This 12-year-old is funny and charismatic. With Pobo, we learn how chess helped turn him around, taking him from a troubled kid who got suspended a lot to not only one of the best chess players in the school, but a student who has become interested in civics. In fact, he winds up running for school president (because again, the geeks reign at IS 318 and a chess nerd can be popular), dubbing himself “Pobama” and running on a platform that promises to try to address the ongoing budget cuts IS 318 has been suffering.
Poboma’s campaign ties in to the bigger story Brooklyn Castle looks to explore, the economic impact of recession cutbacks on afterschool programs. Over the course of the two years this documentary was filmed, wee see IS 318 hit with several budget cuts, including a brutal mid-year $264,000 cut, which causes suffering for many of the school’s programs, including the chess program. The students, the faculty and the PTA all band together in trying to deal and cope with these cuts, and even manage to keep some money on the table. The documentary serves to highlight how important it is that these fights continue. Although we’re all facing tough times and wallets are being tightened everywhere, schools are one of the first places politicians clamp down on, when they should be the last. Instead of trying to nurture the next generation, we’re crippling administrations’ ability to foster the growth of our children, and as much as we’re suffering now, this may make it so much worse in the long run.
What Brooklyn Castle manages to do is get this message across without being aggressive about it. As a viewer, you won’t find yourself muttering, “OK, OK, I get it,” but simply shaking your head in sadness at the situation. Not that the film is a downer; it’s not. In fact, it’s rather uplifting. This is not just because the kids are all a pleasure to watch, but because it’s so refreshing to see how loving and supportive all of the families are. And this goes doubly so for the school staff — there are a lot of problems with the education system, money aside, and it’s great to know that there are still educators out there like this, people who truly get what their important role is, and who care about helping these kids to find themselves and grow. The film does all this without getting stuck in the muddy trope of being about inner-city kids engaging in an atypical activity (it reminds me a lot, in fact, of a years-old “Real Sports” piece about a group of Philly students who play polo).
While the film is well put together from a structural standpoint, giving us small dramatic beats at various chess tournaments (though the most drama probably comes in the scene where Pobo awaits the election results), the more impressive feat is how well it’s put together technically. This is because it’s Katie Dellamaggiore’s first feature film, and she nails it. Again, the narrative structure and beats are all there. But she also makes excellent use of music, of informative slides providing nuggets of information and/or setting the scene for tournaments, and manages to get excellent footage and coverage of every important event in the movie’s narrative. This was a passion project for Dellamaggiore (partially funded through Kickstarter), and I hope she finds more passion projects, because I’d gladly watch more documentaries by her.
Scott Rudin and Sony Pictures recently optioned the film for a remake, which is great. Unfortunately, however, the documentary itself has yet to be purchased for distribution. Hopefully, this will soon change, because Brooklyn Castle is a touching and funny documentary that everyone should see.
Brooklyn Castle had its world premiere at South by Southwest 2012. Hopefully it gets picked up so you can see it.