Budget Cuts, New York’s Exam School System, and the Joys of ‘Brooklyn Castle’

The Special Program that Rescues Inner City Children From Their Plight movie is an ancient staple, whether it’s the summer pre-calculus class in Stand and Deliver, the flash and flair of Mad Hot Ballroom and the Step Up franchise, or the off-screen phenomenon of the P.S. 22 Chorus. And while the wonderful documentary Brooklyn Castle, which I saw at SXSW, about the nationally competitive middle school chess program at Brooklyn’s I.S. 318 follows the same basic formula, it’s a much more sophisticated take on the genre:

The movie follows the team at I.S. 318 during a year while they try to reclaim their national junior high chess championship. But adding another banner to their already-impressive display (the team had won 26 national championships going into that season) is only part of the drama. The team is threatened by massive recession-induced budget cuts and some members are taking the exam that will determine which competitive high school they’re able to attend next year. In addition to those larger political arcs, there are smaller ones: Rochelle, a ninth grader, is working to become the first black female chess master, as well as win the scholarship that would let her go to college; Justus, a gifted sixth grade player who transferred to I.S. 318 to take part in the program, withers under the pressure; Pobo, an outrageously personable eighth grader, is running for school president; and Patrick, struggling ADHD, simply wants to win a tournament match.

These are staple tropes of Afterschool Activities movies, but Brooklyn Castle‘s bright insight is to treat its students not as passive actors who are worked on by the system until a teacher comes along to save them, but as political actors in their own rights. Pobo bases his campaign for president on a promise to push back against budget cuts—and he’s not living out a 12-year-old’s fantasy, he actually organizes letter-writing campaigns and walkathons. Alexis, one of the best eighth-grade players, struggles with how to prioritize his school preference list, suggesting that he should include the training program for the FDNY on his list so he’ll have a path to steady work if the economy continues to tank and his other options don’t work out well. Patrick’s progress helps turn his mother into an advocate as well. Brooklyn Castle doesn’t suggest that everything will be fine because I.S. 318 has a chess club. It makes the much more realistic and important argument that something like the chess club can help prepare students to be their own advocates in a world that shows no interest in saving them.