September 5, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by John Leguizamo
Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Miami in 1998, the drama “Critical Thinking” has a racially diverse cast (Latino, African American and white people) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: A dedicated teacher in a tough Miami school encourages his students to learn how to play chess to boost their learning skills, even though they live in an area where some people pressure the students to become school dropouts and criminals.
Culture Audience: “Critical Thinking” will appeal primarily to people who like feel-good stories about people who overcome obstacles, despite having the odds stacked against them.
There have been many movies about underestimated students, led by an inspirational teacher, who go on to achieve a certain goal together. In these movies, the students are usually underprivileged or disadvantaged in some way when they go up against people who are more privileged and have more advantages than the “underdogs” have. “Critical Thinking” (which is a very bland title for a movie that’s actually quite good) takes this concept and makes a slightly above-average movie, even though it hits a lot of familiar tonal beats that lead to a very predictable ending.
John Leguizamo not only stars in “Critical Thinking,” but he also makes his theatrical-release feature-film directorial debut with the movie, which is based on true events about a group of underprivileged students who competed in a national chess championship. Under his solid direction, “Critical Thinking” has some moments that are less cliché than others. Dito Montiel’s screenplay for “Critical Thinking” doesn’t clutter the movie with too many backstories, although it leaves the impression that the teacher gave higher priority and more attention to the male students than the female students.
In “Critical Thinking,” which takes primarily in place in Miami, it’s 1998 at Miami Jackson High School, where many students are from financially deprived homes in crime-ridden neighborhoods. Mario Martinez (played by Leguizamo) is a teacher for an elective class called Critical Thinking. Mario knows his class is often a dumping ground where delinquent students are sent, but that doesn’t stop him from fighting for the type of respect (and budget) that the financially strapped school gives to regular classes.
Mario’s boss is school principal Ms. Kestel (played by Rachel Bay Jones), a hard-nosed cynic who has an air of racial condescension about her when she deals with Mario and the school’s students, who are mostly people of color. Ms. Kestel comes across as someone who wants everyone to think she’s doing her part to help underprivileged kids, but she’s the type that thinks she’s too good to actually mix with people of color in her personal life.
The threat of violence is always a danger to many of the school’s students. A Spanish-speaking immigrant student who is transferred into Mario’s class doesn’t attend the class for very long, because he gets shot and killed on the street by a local gangster over a petty misunderstanding. Ms. Kestel has this reaction when she and Mario talk about the murder: “While unfortunate, it’s not a total shock anymore.” This police investigation into the murder becomes a subplot to the movie, since one of Mario’s students witnessed the crime, but he doesn’t want to snitch on the gangster.
Meanwhile, life has to go on in Mario’s class, where he teaches a hodgepodge of topics, including art, literature, history and philosophy. The favorite thing he likes to teach is chess. He encourages his students to “dig deeper than your dusty old Britannica encyclopedia” and find things that aren’t taught in textbooks.
He’s not shy about telling his students that influential people of color have often been erased from history because white men were in charge of writing history books for centuries. Mario is aware he could get in trouble for this kind of talk in the classroom, so he peeks outside the classroom door first to make sure that a white co-worker such as Ms. Kestel isn’t lurking nearby to possibly overhear him. On the subject of chess, Mario tells his students, “How come we don’t know that chess was invented in India, perfected in Persia and modernized by a [Puerto Rican] guy named Maura?”
Mario shows the students how chess can help in all aspects of life because it involves the skill of thinking ahead and strategizing. Although he has about 30 students in his classroom on any given day, there are four (and then later five) students who end up being the focus of the story, since they’re the chosen ones for the school’s chess team.
Sedrick Roundtree (played by Corwin Tuggles) is the unofficial student leader of the chess team and the one most likely to encourage the others when they feel defeated. Even before he took Mario’s class, Sedrick was an avid chess player. Sedrick has an unassuming confidence about himself that most people respect.
Oelmy “Ito” Paniagua (played by Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) has a big rebellious streak and is Sedrick’s closest friend. Ito doesn’t really think chess is cool until Sedrick convinces him to join the school’s chess team. Ito is also the student in this chess group who’s most likely to be tempted into joining a gang or becoming a drug dealer. It’s hinted at, but not shown, that Ito comes from an abusive home.
Rodelay “Roddy” Medina (played by Angel Bismark Curiel) is the group’s jokester. He dislikes confrontation and arguments, and he gets easily hurt if he thinks his friends are disloyal. Just like Sedrick, Roddy has a passion for chess and is highly competitive when it comes to the game.
Gil Luna (played by Will Hochman) is the quietest and most mellow member of the group. Although he has a Latino name, he can easily pass for being white. His apparent “whiteness” makes him the target of some teasing by the darker-skinned members of the group, but the teasing is never mean-spirited. All of the members of the group end up getting teased or taunted by one another at some point.
Much later in the story, a fifth student joins the chess team. His name is Marcel Martinez (played by Jeffry Batista), a Cuban immigrant who doesn’t know much English. Sedrick recruited Marcel to enroll in the school and join the chess team, after Sedrick and Roddy were playing some chess in Domino Park, invited some local people to pay chess with them, and were blown away by Marcel’s extraordinary talent. There’s a scene in the movie where Marcel can play chess with multiple people at a time, with his back turned to them and without looking at the chessboard, and by calling out the moves that he wants to play.
Sedrick is also the only student whose unhappy home life is shown in the movie. He lives with his alcoholic widower father (played by Michael Kenneth Williams), whose first name is never revealed in the movie. Sedrick father, when he’s not passed out drunk, frequently gets angry and picks fights with Sedrick.
The only time that Sedrick and his father bond is when they play chess together, but his father is a sore loser. Sedrick’s mother was killed by a hit-and-run accident that Sedrick witnessed when he was 6 years old. It’s obvious that he and his father haven’t been able to grieve or talk about her death in a way that can help them heal from the trauma of their loss.
When Sedrick’s father hears about Sedrick being on the school’s chess team, he scoffs at Sedrick and tells him it’s a waste of time because chess isn’t the kind of thing that most people can do as a job. And his father gets even more irritated when Sedrick’s chess team starts competing with other schools’ chess teams. Although it’s never said out loud, it’s clear that Sedrick’s father didn’t have an opportunity to be part of a school chess team that got to travel to different competitions, and he’s jealous and resentful that Sedrick is doing what he never got to do.
Although “Critical Thinking” has some heavy issues, such as gang violence, alcoholism and abusive homes, the movie also has some humor—namely, the camaraderie that the boys have with each other, especially when Roddy is around. And in a rarity for a movie about high-school students, dating isn’t really the cause of any of the angst or conflict in the story, because the boys are so focused on chess. Sedrick is the only one in the group who has a girlfriend. Her name is Chanayah (played by Zora Casebere), and she attends the same school, but she’s written as a fairly minor character.
In fact, the movie’s biggest flaw is how the female students in the movie are essentially written as background characters, with the implication being that the female students weren’t good enough to be on Mario’s chosen chess team. It’s not clear if the girls in his class aren’t interested in chess or if Mario didn’t think they were worth encouraging as much as he encourages the male students to be on the chess team.
Whatever the case, there’s definitely more than a whiff of sexism about how this chess team was assembled—and the gender imbalance is all the more noticeable when Miami Jackson High School’s chess team competes against other schools who have plenty of girls on their chess teams. That’s not to say that the movie needed to rewrite history and put girls on the Miami Jackson team, which was apparently an all-male team in real life in 1998. But the screenplay should have at least addressed why none of the girls in Mario’s class ended up on the team.
Another big question left unanswered in the movie is: “What is Mario’s own background and why did he want to become a teacher?” In one of his many “tough love” lectures to his chosen chess students when they get discouraged or act too rowdy, Mario hints that he also comes from a troubled and tough background like they do. But that’s as far as it goes. No further details are given about what kind of man Mario is when he’s not working as a teacher. There’s no “home life” shown for any of the movie’s characters except for Sedrick.
“Critical Thinking” is not a disappointing movie, but parts of the story could have done more to fill in some blanks. For example, something happens to Ito toward the end of the film and the outcome is never fully explained. If not for the acting of the main cast members, several parts of “Critical Thinking” would be quite boring to watch. Leguizamo’s fast-talking, sometime wisecracking persona serves him well in this role, since Mario is supposed to be an unconventional teacher who can relate to his students.
Lendeborg (as Ito) and Curiel (as Roddy) also stand out in their roles. Ito is a tough guy who doesn’t want to show his vulnerabilities, while Roddy is a vulnerable guy who doesn’t want to be so tough that he alienates his friends. Both portrayals are nuanced and worth watching, since these two characters are more than just generic roles.
Tuggles (as Sedrick) also does a commendable performance, particularly in some emotionally raw scenes that Sedrick has with his father. Williams is a very good actor, but he’s had many roles in movies and TV shows where he’s a guy with a mean streak/bad temper, so there’s really nothing new or noteworthy that Williams does in this movie.
“Critical Thinking” is worth a look for people who want to see a real-life inspirational story portrayed in a familiar way. The believable performances from most of the cast go a long way in preventing the movie from sinking into forgettable mediocrity. With “Critical Thinking,” Leguizamo also has proved that he can do well as a director who makes very good casting choices and who has a knack for telling a crowd-pleasing story.
Vertical Entertainment released “Critical Thinking” in select U.S. virtual cinemas, on digital and on VOD on September 4, 2020.