A team grows in Brooklyn

Documentary highlights success of middle school's chess squad

Posted: November 16, 2012

AN UNDERFUNDED New York City middle school is the main focus of "Brooklyn Castle," the uplifting documentary story of how a chess program transforms the lives of inner-city students.

Director Katie Dellamaggiore profiles Intermediate School 318, where teacher Elizabeth Vicary's after-school chess program had such a powerful effect on children that it became part of the curriculum and produced national champions.

What becomes of a program so demonstrably successful and obviously effective? It becomes the target of severe budget cuts, giving the movie a built-in, David -and-Goliath narrative.

The most effective advocates for the program are the children themselves. We see that chess, which has produced academic confidence, has also produced a competitive zeal and organizational genius that they apply to fund raising to keep their program just above water.

Dellamaggiore has an impressive, entertaining roster of real-life characters. Pobo Efekoro is an immigrant's son with a big personality that makes him a natural leader. Rochelle Ballantyne bids to become the first female African-American to reach chess master status. Talented recruit Justus Williams tries to combine natural genius with formal training.

Their personal biographies exhibit the happy, dramatic turbulence we've seen in similar dramas of scholastic life in the inner city, from "Hoop Dreams" to the more recent "Undefeated."

It's infectious. Still, we feel that these kids, scouring their community for money it doesn't really have, are always on edge of the knife.

In Brooklyn, they're not taking checkmate for an answer.

Blog: philly.com/KeepItReel

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