Critical Thinking

Director: John Leguizamo
Screenplay: Dito Montiel
Stars: John Leguizamo (Mario Martinez), Rachel Bay Jones (Principal Kestel), Michael Kenneth Williams (Mr. Roundtree), Corwin C. Tuggles (Sedrick Roundtree), Jorge Lendeborg Jr. (Ito Paniagua), Angel Bismark Curiel (Rodelay Medina), Will Hochman (Gil Luna), Jeffry Batista (Marcel Martinez), Zora Casebere (Chanayah), Ramses Jimenez (Andre Lamar), Todd Allen Durkin (Detective Ransone)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2020
Country: U.S.
Critical Thinking
Critical Thinking

John Leguizamo’s Critical Thinking takes its rightful place among similarly inspirational movies in which dedicated teachers face an uphill battle in inspiring in their struggling students an immense love for the value and virtue of learning despite their desperate circumstances. It is pure formula—very nearly plug-and-play—but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing because Leguizamo, as both actor and director, invests the film with a genuine sense of care and respect for the challenges of modern public education, especially in impoverished neighborhoods. The parameters of the screenplay by Dito Montiel (A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints) will be immediately familiar to anyone who has seen Stand and Deliver (1988) or Dangerous Minds (1995) or Coach Carter (2005) or Freedom Writers (2007)—all films that revolve around the same dynamic of a dedicated teacher who inspires in his or students something more than would typically be expected of them.

Such films often feature a particular subject—calculus in Stand and Deliver, for example, or personal writing in Freedom Writers—as a focused alternative to the cyclical violence of life on the street, and Critical Thinking is no different. In this case, the subject is chess, which Leguizamo’s Mario “Mr. T” Martinez, a social studies teacher at Miami Jackson High School and passionate chess player, uses to stimulate and challenge his students, many of whom are taking his class as an “easy” elective and have little interest in the game. There is a core group, though, that takes chess very seriously under his tutelage, including Sedrick (Corwin C. Tuggles), who lives with his embittered, widowed father (Michael Kenneth Williams) who takes particular pleasure in beating his son at chess; Ito (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), who is constantly late to class because he has to work nights to help support his family; and Rodelay (Angel Bismark Curiel), who brings much needed levity to the group. This core of determined students is rounded out with Gil (Will Hochman), the only white kid in the class who Sedrick has to convince to return after punching him in the face for stepping on his new basketball shoes.

Based on a true story and set in the late 1990s, Critical Thinking chronicles the kids’ unlikely ascension through the ranks of competitive chess tournaments, where they eventually won the National Chess Championship (five years in a row, as it turns out). There are plenty of hurdles to overcome, one of the biggest being the finances required to pay the entry fees and travel costs for competing in various tournaments, which the students at one point try to earn by hustling games in the park (they lose badly, but end up gaining another team member in Marcel Martinez, a chess whiz and recent Cuban immigrant played by Jeffry Batista). The film puts into stark relief the simple reality that “inspiration” is not enough to give underprivileged kids a chance to compete on the same level as kids who have (and take for granted) so many more resources.

Mr. T faces opposition from all directions—not just the cynical school principal (Rachel Bay Jones), who has little patience for anything beyond just managing day-to-day operations at the underperforming school, but also a culture that assumes that poor kids of color are incapable of competing at elite levels at something like chess. Unlike many similar inspirational teacher films, Mr. T is not a “white savior” who comes to know and understand his students of color, but rather a Cuban-American who understands them already, yet refuses to accept the limitations the world of systemic racism wants to place on them. He is strict, but also empathetic; firm, but kind. Leguizamo is probably best known as a comedic actor and performer, but he has long since proven his dramatic chops in films like Brian De Palma’s Carlito’s Way (1993), Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam (1999), and Sebastián Cordero’s Cronicas (2004), and here he gives us a delicate, nuanced performance both in front of and behind the camera that highlights Mr. T’s interpersonal qualities that helped bring so much success to his students without crowning him with a halo. Leguizamo, whose only previous experience directing a film was the 2003 made-for-television boxing dramas Undefeated, is smart enough to know that he is working with solid material that doesn’t require him to reinvent the wheel, and even when Critical Thinking feels a bit formulaic, it is still an engaging and moving reminder that externally imposed limitations are meant to be shattered.

Copyright © 2020 James Kendrick

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Overall Rating: (3)

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