Yesterday I finally had my chance to go to San Francisco and watch the movie Brooklyn Castle, which I have already blogged about a couple times before (here and here). There are a few spoilers below — hopefully small ones — and I will flag them for any readers who haven’t seen the movie yet.
For any readers who might think, “Oh, documentaries are boring,” or “Oh, chess movies are boring,” (not that I expect too many readers of this site to think such a thing!), let me reassure you that Brooklyn Castle is not what you expect! The movie takes us into the lives of five featured kids — Rochelle, Justus, Pobo, Patrick, and Artis. We meet their parents, we see the reality of their lives and we hear about their aspirations. For every one of them, chess is about opportunity.
Either the filmmaker (Katie Dellamaggiore) chose incredibly good subjects or she was incredibly good at talking with these kids, because their conversation seems completely natural, not forced for the camera. We really get to know them and care about them. She also follows them into their homes and talks with their parents. We see them getting up at 3:00 AM to go to a tournament. In one of the movie’s best scenes, [spoiler alert -- skip the rest of the paragraph if you don't want to know yet] we see Artis telling his mother that he has gotten into the selective high school he wanted, and his mother explaining it to his father (who doesn’t speak English). See, it isn’t all about chess. None of these parents are “Little League parents.” [end spoiler alert]
Of course I was curious about how my former student Elizabeth Spiegel (née Vicary) would be presented. She and the vice principal, John Galvin, get a lot of camera time but the filmmaker never asked them about their background. The filmmaker chose to make the movie about the students and not about the coaches, which I think was a wise choice.
But there are a few times when Elizabeth talks to the camera, and I thought she made some great comments. One time she says that she believes chess is a good subject for middle-school kids because they can see that the teacher doesn’t have all the answers. In math class, for example, the teacher will always know the “correct” solution. But not in chess. We can tell you how to think about a position — and in some positions there is a definite “correct” move — but most of the time the teacher can’t tell you that Bc4 is right or that Nc6 is wrong. This prepares the students for a world of gray choices.
What a great point! And I admit that I had never thought of it that way. In fact, in my Aptos library chess club, I almost always present tactical puzzles, where there is a definite best solution. I do this partly because my kids need to learn about tactics and especially about checkmate. But I’m not really presenting a representative sample of all chess positions. I think that I should work on including more “shades of gray” positions in my lessons.
Of course, I was very curious to see how Elizabeth does it, how she brings her students up to such a high level of accomplishment. The movie gave me some pretty good ideas. First, there’s no nonsense in her classes. They have to solve these positions, and the students stay focused on the task at hand. Second, they go over a lot of positions. I think this must be key. In the library chess club I talk about one position a week. In Elizabeth’s classes they are going over several positions a day. Big difference. They also work on openings. This is something I am more reluctant to do, except in a general sense, but if I were training kids to play in tournaments (as Elizabeth is) then I would do it.
There’s a little bit of tension in the movie between chess for results and chess to enjoy and build up your mental abilities. Some of the kids go through some disappointing tournaments. I think that on the whole, Elizabeth and Mr. Galvin do a good job of putting things in perspective for the kids and helping them see that it’s the process and their attitude that’s important, not the number of points they score.
On the other hand, there are times when the points really do matter. A lot. [Big spoiler alert -- skip the next two paragraphs if you don't want to know.] Rochelle ties for first place in the national girls’ high-school championship, where the top prize is a scholarship to the University of Texas at Dallas. And there is only one scholarship available. I’m very, very uncomfortable with the idea of something as valuable and life-changing as a college scholarship depending on the tiebreak procedure for a six-round tournament. Why on earth couldn’t they split it into two half scholarships?
And yet… Rochelle wins. And you can see in the movie what a huge boost it gives to her self-esteem and her motivation, which have been wavering. Not only that, for someone in her financial situation, it’s possible that a half-scholarship wouldn’t do. It may be a full scholarship or no college at all. [End spoiler alert.]
Can you imagine playing a chess game with your whole future at stake? Whether it’s true or not, that’s the way it looks to some of these kids.
I haven’t mentioned Pobo yet, who is the star of the movie. Charismatic, a team player, elected student body president — not just a chess nerd! He runs for president on a “Vote for Pobama” slogan, and he has a plan for getting elected president (of the U.S.) when he grows up. Elizabeth pulls him aside before one of his games and tells him that although it’s great that everybody on the team looks to him for leadership and support, he has to make sure that he carves out a little time for himself. “It’s Pobo time,” she says. Love it!
Finally, let me mention all the little things that make a movie great. The filmmaker comes up with intuitive, simple graphics that help viewers understand how tournament standings are determined and what the ratings mean. This could have been a stumbling block for non-chess-savvy viewers, but she made it easy. Also, the music is outstanding, building atmosphere without being intrusive.
Brooklyn Castle is comparable to The Street Stops Here, a documentary about the St. Anthony High School basketball team in Jersey City, another sports program that has achieved incredible national success on a financial shoestring. That is also an awesome documentary, but I think that Brooklyn Castle is even better. For one thing, it’s more unexpected. We all know about inner city kids playing basketball as a way out of the ghetto. But chess? That’s more of a surprise — and I think it sends a really positive message. You can increase your chances in life by being smart, not just by being a great athlete.
Also, The Street Stops Here focuses primarily on the character of Bob Hurley, the coach of the St. Anthony basketball team. Brooklyn Castle focuses more on the kids. It’s a different choice, and one that really works in this case.
As for the similarities, both documentaries direct a spotlight at the financial cutbacks at our schools, and how they threaten sports and after-school programs. We’re in danger of failing our kids if we don’t give them these opportunities.
And both movies, sadly, are dedicated to a principal who died too young. Fred Rubino, the principal at I.S. 318, does not have a lot of time on camera in this movie — I suspect that he wasn’t a chess player — but he surely must have had a lot to do with encouraging the chess program and allowing it to reach its potential.
Check out the Brooklyn Castle website to see if it’s coming to a theater near you. It’s opening this weekend in Columbus, OH, Yellow Springs, OH, Saint George, UT, Tucson, AZ, and St. Helen’s, CA. If you’re in San Francisco, today is the last day to see it!