John Leguizamo's Critical Thinking touts chess as winning move to success

Dwight Casimere | 3/16/2020, 10:28 p.m.
Movie review One of the casualties of the cancellation of the all-influential SXSW Festival in Austin was the World Premiere ...

Movie review

One of the casualties of the cancellation of the all-influential SXSW Festival in Austin was the World Premiere of John Leguizamo's directorial debut, Critical Thinking. Set in 1998 Miami in the hardscrabble Allapattah neighborhood, the film centers around the real-life events surrounding a charismatic Cuban-American teacher who believes he can reach a bunch of largely Latino and African American kids whom everyone in society, including the educational system, has given up on, through the game of chess. Leguizamo does a brilliant job of recreating the persona of Chess Coach Mario Martinez, as well as directing this heartwarming film.

The film is based on real-life events. Miami's Jackson High School chess team is the first inner city team to win the U.S. National Chess Championship.

The film project surrounding its win has been in the works for more than 20 years: Miami movie producer Carla Berkowitz obtained the rights after reading an article about the chess team in the Miami Herald's Tropic magazine in 1997.

But it wasn't until actor John Leguizamo got involved that the film began to take shape. After he committed to star in and direct the movie, shooting began.

Producer Berkowitz and co-producer Scott Rosenfelt, who made Home Alone, asked Miami-Dade County for $100,000 in film incentives so they could shoot the movie in its story locale. Berkowitz says she couldn't imagine shooting in another city. "A hundred percent it's a Miami story," she said, " and it's a love letter to Miami Jackson Senior High School and Miami in the '90s, how could I go somewhere else?"

The movie centers on five of the chess players from Miami Jackson's team in 1998: Oelmy "Ito" Paniagua, Gil Luna, Rodelay Medina, Sedrick Roundtree, and Marcel Martinez. Four of the actors portraying those characters have connections to Miami.

Jorge Lendeborg Jr., the star of the new Transformers movie, who plays Paniagua in Critical Thinking, went to American Senior High in Hialeah. Miami resident Jeffrey Batista, whose career has been in Spanish-language media, plays the role of Martinez. Angel Bismark Curiel, who appears as Medina, attended Miami Arts Charter School. And actor William Hochman, in the role of Luna, says his mother grew up in Kendall.

Because accuracy is important to the filmmakers, the stars of the movie have competed against one another in multiple chess games.

Throughout the filming, the real-life chess champions — now in their late 30s and early 40s — were onboard as consultants

Mario Martinez, the history teacher who started the chess class at Miami Jackson, also played a key role behind the scenes. Recently retired, he says he's excited to see his students recognized in a Hollywood movie.

"I always felt it was a great story because we broke all stereotypes," he says. "Diverse backgrounds, ethnic groups all came together. Teaching the class was wonderful."

A former student, Ester Zaldivar Acevedo, reunited with Martinez on set at Hialeah Park, where her teenage son Bryan got to be an extra in one of the competition scenes. The Critical Thinking class, she says, was "the blessing" of her high-school years.