Just when cities like San Francisco are banning public displays of chess, Jake Goldberger’s Life of a King tells the true story of a man who used the game to help disadvantaged kids, albeit in a way that’s almost too movie-ish to feel true.
After 18 years in prison for robbing a bank, Eugene Brown (Cuba Gooding Jr., gaining some gravitas in his late 40s) lightly fibs his way into a janitorial job in a tough Washington, D.C., high school, where he helps the students avoid a life of crime by teaching them to play chess, and to embrace its attendant metaphors of strategy and discipline.
Even if the story is faithful to the way the events played out in real life — and the official description is that the picture is a “dramatic retelling” — Life of a King couldn’t feel more formulaic.
It hits every beat of the Dedicated Educator in an Inner-City School genre (with echoes of Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds, and Lean on Me, and even hints of Class of 1984 and Summer School), down to the climactic Slow Clap Begun by the Unlikeliest Person.
But Life of a King isn’t setting out to reinvent cinema, or even a genre, but rather just to be a moderately uplifting tale that makes watching chess interesting.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 15, 2014