I am a documentary junkie. I watch documentaries like your grandma watches her soaps – often and voraciously. A well-made documentary is one of the most compelling uses of visual storytelling, and I’m always on the hunt for a new one.
Enter Brooklyn Castle.
From 2012, this is not your typical public-education-is-broken documentary. In fact, the filmmaker has said she wanted to turn her camera on something going well for a change. And did she ever.
I.S. 318 in Brooklyn, NY is an urban middle school where more than 70% of students live below the poverty line. It’s also a school with a chess team that’s won national championships year after year after year for nearly a decade. At I.S. 318, the chess nerds are the cool kids.
What Brooklyn Castle gets so right is in how it treats its subjects. Too often a documentary loses its focus, tries to tell too many stories and ultimately, an audience can’t get attached to any of them. Here, we focus on just a few kids, and the teachers and families who support what they do. There’s the young girl who’s on her way to being the first female African American grandmaster. The sixth-grader who’s already leaps and bounds ahead of his older counterparts. The eager but easily-distracted under-achiever who just wants to fit in, just wants to be good at something (also known as the one I just want to wrap up in the biggest hug ever he’s so fantastic…).
And the teachers. These teachers are what restore your faith in education. They give a shit. They see their students as people, not children. They say it like it is; they cheer the loudest when things go right and push the hardest when things start to slip.
Brooklyn Castle also has in its favor the competitive nature of a chess match. No, seriously. Like a football or ping-pong doc built around a challenging season and the structure of the game, this film follows these kids over the course of their school year, the various matches they participate in and their standings as they progress through each. The impulse to cheer is all but inherent.
Not that every good doc has to be one with a happy ending (see The Imposter, Blackfish, et al). And yet, this doc, about kids just looking for a break in an unforgiving city, about teachers hoping to instill in their pupils a drive and work ethic, about a school determined to keep opportunities available to everyone, regardless of income – that’s something you can cheer for.