Brooklyn Castle | Black Harvest Film Festival

Nearly every year, the programmers of Black Harvest—Chicago’s annual, monthlong festival of films about black history and culture—book at least one title that makes a splash with audiences during its subsequent theatrical run. If there’s a breakout hit this year—a Being Elmo or a Trouble the Water—it’s probably Brooklyn Castle, the festival closer. Doing for budding Bobby Fischers what Louder than a Bomb did for up-and-coming slam poets, Katie Dellamaggiore’s festival-closing documentary peers inside a struggling NYC middle school whose chess team has won more national titles than any other junior high in the country. Among the team’s racially diverse roster, four leaders emerge; sticking doggedly to the competition-doc template, Dellamaggiore traces their parallel paths to the finals.

It’s easy to bemoan the movie’s formulaic, Spellbound-indebted construction, but hard not to get wrapped up in the plight of its subjects. While one contender gamely vies to become the first African-American female chess master, another copes with the anxiety of trying to hold onto his high ranking. Economic realities threaten to cut the team’s progress short; the students rack up victories as their proud principal does some strategizing of his own against the budget-slashing school board. What’s most endearing about Brooklyn Castle is the case it makes for chess itself—both as an extracurricular passion for at-risk teens and a concentration-building activity in a world of short attention spans.

Brooklyn Castle screens Sunday, August 26, at 3:15pm and Thursday, August 30, at 6:30pm at the Siskel Film Center.

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)