Telling the true story of the 1998 Miami Jackson High School chess team who used their skills to compete in the state championships, Critical Thinking — starring and directed by John Leguizamo — is a compelling biopic-sports-movie looking at race, class, and talent in the most unlikely places.
Director: John Leguizamo
Release Date: March 14, 2020 (SXSW)
Leguizamo is best known as an actor, standup comedian and disruptor — persistently asking questions about Latinx representation in mainstream media through his signature comedy and pathos. His latest film Critical Thinking may seem an unusual subject for the storyteller, whose roles and sketches have often been Latinx-oriented, exploring perspectives that others haven’t covered with his candid honesty. Look no further than his 2018 Netflix special Latin History for Morons (“That’s you,” he quips) for telling clues about his knowledge and approach to the American education and entertainment systems.
But his new film has a lot in common with his earlier work, characterised by the same passion to make opportunities available to everyone, even from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. His genuine conviction filters down through his direction and characterisation, resulting in a heartfelt directorial debut that can inspire people of all ages to excel and achieve their best.
Leguizamo, in one of his most natural roles, plays Mario Martinez, the teacher of a Critical Thinking elective module at the high school. The four central characters he mentors all have unique backgrounds. Sedrick Roundtree (Corwin C. Tuggles) lives with his alcoholic father, a hardened man with whom he has difficulty seeing eye to eye. Ito Paniagua (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) has anger issues and regular run-ins with gang members, even threatening other students — though teacher Mario is on hand to step in and remind him to think through the consequences. Also making up the group are the intelligent and perceptive class clown Rodelay Medina (Angel Bismarck Curiel) and Gil Luna (Will Hochman), a member who was initially pushed out but is persuaded to use his talent for the good of the team.
As might be expected, there are pre-existing tensions in the class. In the opening scenes, we’re shown that a student has recently been deported — ‘deportation has a way of messing with the system’ — and we’re introduced to a new student who is shortly shot dead on the streets. We’re under no illusion: this is a difficult neighbourhood for young people.
Mario’s module seems to attract troubled students since it’s easy to pass; but in reality, a lot of the students who, despite their laziness and occasional disruptive behaviour, actually get a lot from Mario’s guidance and are attentive to his life lessons: don’t make things harder for yourself than they already are, think about the consequences if you want a better life.
The four best players in the group, under Mario’s guidance, prepare to compete in the regional chess championships. Despite a desperately under-funded education system, they devise creative ways to pay for their passage and entry to the championships. Cinematically the film seems to owes a lot to influences such as Freedom Writers and Akeela and the Bee, in that it also centres on promising students from disadvantaged backgrounds, encouraged by a kindly mentor to realise that they’re worth more than their background.
I had the opportunity to interview John Leguizamo, and he spoke about his desire to turn chess into a sports movie. In many ways the tropes have been observed: the students compete against much wealthier, more privileged schools. It could draw comparison to The Greatest Game Ever Played. Nevertheless, there’s a kinship between the boys that solidifies throughout the film and it’s encouraging to see them support each other and enjoy themselves along the way.
The real challenges of the film come in the form of their family roots which tend to hold them back. The idea of gang violence is also played with, indicating that this is a group with everything to lose. It’s a powerful look at a neighbourhood in a time where violence was rampant, and the effect that a few individuals with belief and aspirations can achieve.
Leguizamo spoke further about his experience of producing Critical Thinking and he commented on his ‘brilliant’ producers, Carla Berkowitz and Scott Rosenfelt, who spent over 20 years developing the project from story to screenplay after working on different versions of the same story simultaneously. That was what compelled Leguizamo to bring them all together on the project. He also spoke about the importance of Latin representation in the film:
“I found the story so riveting, so important and so necessary in these times when Latin people and Latin stories are just now represented. We’re the largest ethic group in America and we’re less than 4% of the people behind the camera, and our stories are even less than that, just 1%. And the story was just so positive, so everything I saw growing up – I grew up in the hood. I saw how much talent there was, how gifted people were, and it wasn’t being used or nurtured.”
While some criticism has been levelled at Critical Thinking for its adherence to familiar narrative patterns, I’d say that it avoids cliche where possible. Its origins in a real, aspirational story, and the cast’s rigorous task of consulting with the original students and teacher on set, training in the chess tactics that were used 20 years ago, is about as authentic as a film of this nature can get.
By appearing in the film as well as directing, Leguizamo has exercised a level of creative ownership for which he has praised his producers: “They believed in me wholeheartedly and I’ve never had that experience in my entire life…They knew that I cared deeply and that I wanted to do it as perfectly as I could.”
In times where the discussion about race, equality and representation is so prominent, Leguizamo adds his insightful voice to the mix. In doing so, he has created a film about more than just a game: the characters encourage viewers to think carefully about the education system and the legal system, the narrative fights anti-immigration sentiment, and overall Leguizamo reinforces the message that every young person matters and can be encouraged to become someone great.