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Brooklyn Castle

SXSW 2012 Review

Rescue Media ; 101 minutes

Director: Katie Dellamaggiore

Written by on March 24, 2012 

IS 318, a Brooklyn public school residing in an area with a 70% poverty rate, with a top ranked chess team is the subject of the uplifting doc Brooklyn Castle. Director Katie Dellamaggiore spent several years with the chess team when budgets for non-essential school activities (ie: arts and extracurricular activities) were slashed by $1.3 million, which means a reduction in funds to travel to chess events.

The students of IS 318 share essentially the same story as those briefly chronicled in Waiting for Superman and The Lottery – they hope to get into a good school, and that rides on either a lottery or a standardized test. I suppose a good school will provide the resources to continue their chess career, although there is a not-for-profit that hooks up several IS 318 students with chess-masters, Chess in Schools. Scenes of students discovering which school they got into, complete with intercut interviews of students and parents speaking about their aspirations for a better life always pull at the heartstrings.

Brooklyn Castle‘s immediacy is reflected in the process of children of color in IS 318, as the school teaches a formal chess class with a master instructor (Elizabeth Vicary) and working with students, chess becomes a confidence booster. The film makes for a compelling documentary following several remarkable participants in the program including Rochelle, who at age 13 is the top ranked African-American female chess player and Justice. At age 11 he’s asked to join the United States Chess-Federation’s All Star Team.

The film follows the team over several years, also including a portrait of several parents and their conditions, which make for a compelling social justice documentary. Dare I say the film is political, as all films are political, but it is a call to action in support of programs that enrich the lives of students beyond the classroom. This is part of the diverse education that Arne Duncan calls for – the “whole child” approach, the margins on which these programs run as budgets are continually slashed are shocking. Taking to the streets, the community comes out to support the chess team in a walk-a-thon/fun day.

The evidence of such program is undeniable, and the portraits are intimate and warm, beyond journalism. The film, which approaches territory seen elsewhere including in Jeffrey Blitz’s Spellbound and Marilyn Agrelo’s Mad Hot Ballroom, is in development to be remade as a narrative Hollywood film by Sony Pictures. Instead they should release this film with the kind of marketing campaign that would appeal to a family audience.

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