Games teach us life lessons, and so do movies. But movies can strip away all of the metaphor and hidden machinations, showing us the broad strokes of what happened, meaning we get the highlights and the outcome — the shorthand version of the message.
That’s exactly what Life of a King, based on a true story, does. Eugene Brown (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) sits behind bars, but he’s not caught up in the messy business of staying alive (at least we don’t see that) or languishing in solitude. Brown is making moves — at least moves on a chessboard sitting between his cell and that of a skilled chessman named Searcy (Dennis Haysbert), a lifer and obviously the mentor that has kept Brown together during his stay. We see their hands darting out, shifting pieces, and we know that on that board they are free and alive in ways that extend far beyond the prison walls.
Brown gets out and struggles to gain a comparable freedom, at first, on the outside. He’s a pawn — living in a flophouse, unable to escape the “ex-con” label that limits his employment options, frustrated in his attempts to reach out to his children who have moved on without him — but he yearns to be more and is willing to take risks (e.g. lying on a job application about his incarceration).
He is hired as a janitor at an underprivileged school and advances to working as the school’s detention proctor before the necessary keystrokes fill in the details in the script. As detention proctor, Brown leaps further, attacking his sketchily drawn delinquent charges where it matters most — their pride — as he uses chess to tease and tempt the students.
“You’re pawn now,” he says pointedly to a couple of the guys, “but you could be kings of your own destinies.”
The three students that seem to matter most — Peanut, the dreamer (Kevin Hendricks); Clifton, the hard case (Carlton Byrd); and Tahime, the one with potential (Malcolm M. Mays) — do what they must do, as they’re pushed around the board like checkers rather than chess pieces. And the game, in fact, plays out more like checkers. There are only pawns and kings. The one with potential slices and dices his way from one end of the board to the other and becomes a king, which is amazing and surprising because all of the attention lasers in on him. Brown sacrifices his efforts to reconnect with his own children, in particular a son soon to be released from jail himself, to make sure Tahime has a chance to live up to his aforementioned potential.
In real life, this story probably more closely approximated the intricate strategies of chess: lots of slow starts, misplayed opportunities and losses. Lots of tough losses. But the stereotypical earnestness emanating from Gooding, who has been riffing on this vibe recently in Red Tails and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, feels more honest than the trumped-up thrills of 1994’s Fresh (despite the fact that there’s a more nuanced weaving of chess into that narrative). Life of a King dashes through the after-school message plot points that we’ve seen in movies like Hilary Swank’s Freedom Writers or the Antonio Banderas dance flick Take the Lead because it wants to get to the message — take advantage of your options and something good will come, win or lose.
As an after-school program facilitator, I understand how this works. I use film to engage students to think about stories and the possibility of telling their own. But I also appreciate that it is in the challenging intricacies of talking about film that my students really shine. I can show them feel-good movies like Freedom Writers and Take the Lead and expect them to recognize something of themselves in characters spit-out from a socio-cultural app — project dwellers with multiple siblings, drug-addled mothers and absent fathers, quiet but smart, assisted by teachers deferring dreams (somewhat against their will) in order to do good. But something more intriguing happens when my students get the chance to see a film like Beasts of the Southern Wild, which they might never have stumbled across on their own, with its post-Katrina landscape that was equal parts Mad Max and Where the Wild Things Are with the lyricism of Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou. That’s the kind of experience that opens their minds to the notion of what it means to “read” the screen.
I wish the filmmakers, especially the screenwriter, had delved into that aspect more with Life of a King, highlighting the game and the strategies therein that could have an impact on the streets and beyond. Teach us about chess, like Eugene Brown surely did in real life. But I suppose the lesson here, like any life lesson, is worth celebrating. (Opens at AMC Newport on the Levee Jan. 17) (PG-13) Grade: C
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