A hopeful documentary that demonstrates how even small cuts to public school funding can potentially wipe out hugely beneficial after-school programs, Brooklyn Castle follows the award-winning chess team from Brooklyn’s I.S. 318 for a season to argue, as teacher Elizabeth Vicary puts it, that since chess isn’t in “the direction society’s going maybe makes it more valuable as an educational tool.” Filmmaker Katie Dellamaggiore gets just barely deep enough beneath the surface of most of the young players’ lives to show the extent of the role chess has in their development: It builds character, improves concentration, provides a sense of accomplishment, and even allows them to travel for tournaments, a luxury, as one kid, Pobo, the class president, points out, his family wouldn’t have been able to afford on their own.
For the most talented and dedicated among them, chess proves to even be a gateway into a four-year scholarship to college, as was eventually the case for I.S. 318’s former only-female player, Rochelle Ballantyne, a star who also went on to receive the deserved support in high school from Chess-In-The-Schools, a nonprofit that provided her with a grandmaster mentor and, since she wants to be a lawyer, an internship at a law firm. To keep some balance, Brooklyn Castle wisely also includes the touching story of Patrick Johnston, a kid with ADHD at the lower ranks of the team who, through really pushing himself and working closely with the patient and honorable Ms. Vicary, is able to modestly improve his game, which, for him, is also a big achievement.
These rosy stories are, however, also attributable to an increasing media savviness in today’s information-available world. In contrast to the embarrassing lack of PR consciousness displayed by an employer in the great Hoop Dreams, when the aspiring basektball player Arthur Agee’s father, Bo, is devastatingly laid off, other than I.S. 318’s budget concerns, which are always overcome, Brooklyn Castle can, at times, feel like it was Hollywood-scripted (and maybe this is why Hollywood has bought the rights to the documentary). When taking a look at each film’s production, big differences seem attributable to this: Hoop Dreams, filming in an area of the city unused to media exposure, found its subjects during the making of the film and didn’t set out with an agenda, but Brooklyn Castle is based on a New York Times article and has several institutions’ names at stake who need funding. So, in the latter film, for example, that chess player Pobo wins his school election and several kids get into very selective high schools speaks not only to the kids’ hard work and smarts, but, on a level that some people probably don’t want to acknowledge, to the power institutions have to make changes when they want to.
By showing how successful such a small, seemingly insignificant extracurricular program is, both in terms of games won and lives enriched, Dellamaggiore makes the case to continue to support public schools. To put it in economic terms, even in the face of the astronomical numbers the economy must try to balance, it pays to consider even the small details of society’s greatest investment in the future: our future generations.