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Critical Thinking is a film based on the experiences of a group of Miami teens who won the 1998 U.S National Chess tournament. With a screenplay by Dito Montiel and directed by John Leguizamo, the film features a diverse cast of young and rising talent. The film deals with a lot of prevalent themes that many underrepresented youths deal with today. As one character asks, “Why do they paint us out?” This film examines societal expectations, representation, and battles the gaps in our educational system. Critical Thinking is a film filled with heart, humor, and poetry.
Mr. Mario Martinez’s chess elective class is seen as a joke to Miami Jackson High School. If a kid acts up in another class, he or she is sent to sit in Mr. Martinez’s class. However, while the school does not take the class seriously, the majority of the students in that class express an earnest interest in chess. Mr. Martinez, known as Mr. T and played by John Leguizamo, is a patient teacher who strives to instill an interest in the subject matter in all his students, even the ones that are there to sleep. Anyone who has ever taught will find Mr. T’s struggle is incredibly relatable. While the school, and sometimes the parents, do not expect much from the students, Mr. T does.
The students in Mr. T’s class are a little loud, a little rebellious, and come from underprivileged backgrounds. While they all deal with different circumstances, they are united by their love of chess. The film features a very talented and diverse cast who acts very naturally, giving a heightened realism to their characters. Corwin Tuggles as Sedrick gives a strong performance often acting opposite Michael Kenneth Williams (The Wire) in some very intense scenes. Angel Bismark Curiel plays Rodelay, a light-hearted and carefree character. Curiel has excellent comedic timing and also displays a lot of vulnerability in his character.
John Leguizamo has been on the scene for quite some time and audiences have been able to witness the evolution of his talent in films, television, and the stage. Critical Thinking is Leguizamo’s directorial debut and the character of Mr. T embodies the passion and desire to be heard that Leguizamo’s stage characters represent. Not only does Leguizamo give a great performance, his directorial style captures the vibe and chaos of high school life and the vibrancy of Miami neighborhoods. There are also some very interesting shots that occur during the chess matches.
A story like this can easily fall into some coming of age cliches, but something new is happening in Critical Thinking. Although there is a side plot involving a violent incident that detracts a little from the overall plot, the story presses forward developing unique and individual characters. Critical Thinking mixes history, chess theory, and Pablo Neruda, to tell a moving story about real life. The characters come to see chess as a metaphor for life’s decisions. It is truly an original film that will resonate with anyone who has witnessed the barriers put in place by oppressive societies and mindsets.
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