Brooklyn Castle (Producers Distribution Agency, PG)

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brooklyncastle 75One thread running throughout the film is whether the program will be able to continue in the face of system-wide budget cuts, despite the demonstrable benefits it produces.

 

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Normally I’m allergic to feel-good documentaries about cute kids competing in obscure activities (call it a decade-long Spellbound hangover), but Katie Dellamaggiore’s Brooklyn Castle totally won me over. Dellamaggiore’s subject is the chess program at Brooklyn’s I.S. 318, which has consistently produced some of the best young chess players in the country. (It has a case full of trophies and a hallway lined with national championship banners to prove it.)

Most of the students at I.S. 318 are poor; they attend an ordinary public school, and yet they regularly beat kids from schools with far more resources. In fact, one thread running throughout the film is whether the program will be able to continue in the face of system-wide budget cuts, despite the demonstrable benefits it produces, not only in terms of chess victories, but also in helping the students navigate a tough time in their life and to keep their focus on academics.

There are 85 members of the chess team at I.S. 318, but Dellamaggiore chooses five to focus on, an approach that allows her to present their lives in some depth. Rochelle Ballantyne, an 8th grader, is the highest-ranked player in the school, and wants to be the first female African-American chess master. Justus Williams, a 6th grader, is a prodigy, but has to learn how to cope when he doesn’t meet his own high expectations. Pobo Efekoro, a 7th grader, is a charismatic speaker who campaigns to become the school president. Alexis Paredes sees chess as part of an academic program that will get him into a good high school, a good college, and a well-paying job so he can help his immigrant parents. Patrick Johnson, a 7th grader, ranks near the bottom of the I.S. 318 chess team (but not last, he is quick to point out), but persists because playing chess helps him control his ADHD.

The benefits of learning to play chess seem so obvious that you wonder why more schools don’t have a serious program. It’s an intellectual activity that trains students in strategy and concentration; it rewards effort and provides a great outlet for competitive urges; it gives no advantage to people of any particular size or shape; and, unlike some of our most popular sports, it doesn’t cause brain damage. Finally, you don’t need a lot of resources to start a program—compared to the space and equipment required to field a football team, for instance, a chess team is quite the bargain.

And make no mistake: These chess players and their families are focused on school. One mother admonishes her children that the only “B” word she wants to hear is “books” and the only “G” word is “good grades”; another is moved to tears when her son does so well on the exam for the city-specialized high schools that he is admitted to Brooklyn Tech. Rochelle is particularly motivated to win a championship, not for the trophy, but because it carries a full scholarship to the University of Texas-Dallas.

Besides celebrating the victories, large and small, of these young people, Brooklyn Castle accomplishes several other things. It provides a corrective to the popular image of American schools as obsessed with sports and popularity, and it makes the strongest possible case for funding after-school activities. It’s a question of providing opportunity for all our young people to develop their talents, regardless of the financial status of their families. | Sarah Boslaugh

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