Eugene Brown (Cuba Gooding Jr.) gets out of jail after eighteen years and can’t get a real job. That’s the trouble with being an ex-con: you never really get to lose the ‘con’. But a stint as a high school janitor turns into the supervisor of detention… and soon Brown is forming a chess club in Washington, D.C. The real-life inspiration behind the film drove me to see it, and the easiest compliment is this: it’s Coach Carter with chess.
Brown works hard to get his new charges to care, even while he struggles to relate to his law school-attending daughter and his recently-released son. He’s done a horrible job as a father, but making it up through the chess club doesn’t automatically make him a better dad. Still, as he works to take on the hardships of his best student (Malcolm M. Mays), he recognizes that the chess board has given him a way of equalizing a world that wants so badly to reject him. And he understands that this is his opportunity to pay it forward, so he teaches his young charges to “always think before you move.”
Gooding has been down-and-out for awhile. Seriously, what’s the last notable movie you can remember him (besides The Butler?) But he’s making a comeback and it’s a shame that Jake Goldberger’s Life of a King didn’t get more attention. Along with the Coach Carter comparison, one could say it’s like Terrence Howard’s Pride (about swimming). Somehow, the farther-from-urban the medium, the more striking the difference.
Of course, lacking birth certificates and parental signatures, our young inner city chess players stand out from the whitebread, comfortable lives of many of their opponents. And the racial/social/economic divide grows. But it’s the kind of thing that makes an underdog movie work, and the kind of thing I’m finding more and more attractive, as I differentiate from the blockbuster movies that are over advertised and bombastic (rather than character or plot driven).
In the end, I respect the film because it does protect its king: it makes the main thing the main thing. You must take responsibility for your own actions on the board and in real life. You must figure out who you are, what your life strategy is, and stick to it even when it gets hard or people doubt you. And when life (or an opponent) gives you a second chance, you must be ready to go for it.
Dennis Haysbert plays Searcy, Brown’s chess mentor, and Lisa Gay Hamilton plays Sheila King, the school principal. For more on the Big Chair Chess Club, go here.