by Cindy Summers
Critical Thinking is based on the true story where in 1998 five Latin and Black students from Miami Jackson High School in Miami, Florida overcame the challenging situations in their under-served community and at home, eventually winning the National Chess Championships under the guidance of their teacher Mario Martinez (John Leguizamo) with his “never give up on them” attitude.
Most of the students in Mr. Martinez’s Critical Thinking class came there due to troubles in other areas at school, with Principal Kestel (Rachel Bay Jones) using it as more of a detention situation. When students come to the class, Mr. Martinez gives them two choices, do nothing or play chess, joking that he looks forward to the day a student would actually choose chess.
While having his students’ attention, Mr. Martinez tried to instill better choices and values that would help them to achieve success outside their circumstances. The neighborhood was so rough that a student who was walking home from school and didn’t speak English accidentally bumped into a Black girl causing her to drop her portable CD player, which she did not take well and began yelling at him. Andre Lamar (Ramses Jimenez) drove up to the situation asking her if there was a problem, to which she said this guys my problem and then without even pausing shot the teen in the head saying “there’s no problem no more”.
Mr. Martinez taught them positional chess, tried to get them to focus on the artistry of the game, and taught them that “in the game material advantage was not everything” through examples of classic chess games from unconventional chess masters such as the Opera Game authored by Paul Morphy.
Later Marcel Martinez (Jeffry Batista) ended up enrolling at Miami Jackson High from Cuba sharing his book of original moves in exchange for being schooled in traditional positional chess. Marcel was so skilled he could play 4 matches simultaneously against the team with his back turned and win every match. He became the ringer for the team after Ito’s exit due to pressures from losing his auto repair job and falling in with Andre Lamar.
The team was fortunate enough to be gifted some cross-country tickets to the national competition sponsored by the airline to attend the National Chess Championships in Southern California. Mr. Martinez had these parting words as they left to compete, “You already got the knowledge and the moves and the strategy, now it’s just about that thing, that intangible that’s part of you that you bring to the game”.
Marcel had to play the guy who had never lost a game, and when his opponent asked him to come into the bathroom to convince him for a draw, Marcel said no needing a whole point not a half a point for the team to win. When they returned, Marcel realized that his opponent’s clock had not been stopped and he had run down to only 2 minutes, while Marcel still had over 4 minutes left on his clock. Instead of taking advantage of the opportunity, Marcel let his clock wind down to match his opponent be a good sportsman, then played the game and won.
This film highlights the challenges of minorities in under-served communities, but provides inspiration with it’s message that “it doesn’t matter how rich or poor you are, what Ivy League school you may go or may not go to, what prison you hopefully never step foot in because chess is the great equalizer”.