(director: John Leguizamo; screenwriter: Ditio Montiel; cinematographer: Zach Zamboni; editor: Jamie Kirkpatrick; music: Chris Hajian; cast: John Leguizamo (Mario Martinez), Rachel Bay Jones (Principal Kestel), Michael Kenneth Williams (Mr. Roundtree), Corwin C. Tuggles (Sedrick Roundtree), Jorge Lendeborg (Ito Paniagua), Angel Bismark Curiel (Rodelay), Zora Casebere (Chanayah), Will Hochman (Gil Luna), Jeffry Batista (Marcel Martinez); Runtime: 117; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Jason Mandl/Scott M. Rosenfelt; Vertical Entertainment; 2020)
“It’s filmed as if a conventional docudrama.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
The Colombian-born actor John Leguizamo (“Undefeated”) directs and stars in this fictionalized true story (whose earnest chess story is played out much like a competitive “Big Game” formula sports story). It’s set in the inner-city, the location of Miami’s Jackson high school, where all the participants hail from. It’s an inspirational drama about a group of impoverished children who get respect as chess players. The hero of the film is the inspiring teacher Mr. Martinez (John Leguizamo), called by his students “Mr. T.”, who convinces his boisterous multi-ethnic elective class in Critical Thinking (they play chess in class) that “Chess is the great equalizer.” Encouraging the class to keep off drugs and away from gangs and other bad influences in their neighborhood, he preaches the right message for his street-smart class to follow. The teacher coaches a 5-player team, made up of —the leader, Sedrick Roundtree (Corwin C. Tuggles); the bully, Ito Paniagua (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), the white boy video gamer, Gil Luna (Will Hochman); the braggart, Rodelay Medina (Angel Curiel) and later, the Cuban prodigy, Marcel Martinez (Jeffry Batista), who joins the group at the last minute after coming here from Cuba. In 1998, the school team wins the U.S. National Chess Championship.
The script by Ditio Montiel pleads the case for getting a good education, for schools getting the funding they need and critiques public education policies for maintaining racist views and not giving minorities a fair chance to succeed. It’s filled with cliches, and a big-build-up for the beloved cliched teacher who won’t give up on the kids he loves.
It’s filmed as if a conventional docudrama, a take-off on “To Sir, with Love”. It bored me at times with its relentless messaging more than it excited me with anything it had to say that I hadn’t heard before. But it’s good to see a teacher (well-played by Leguizamo) be such a positive influence on his mostly minority students and get to raise their low expectations.
REVIEWED ON 9/13/2020 GRADE: B-