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Chess as an allegory for life seems like a premise scooped from a self-help book of an ilk with Stephen Covey’s “Begin with the end in mind” from ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’; but ‘Life of a King’ parlays it commendably. The film relates the true story of conman turned impromptu life coach Eugene Brown (Cuba Gooding Jr.) who reforms a community of high school delinquents by preaching that on the “board” of life, forward thinking can determine survival.
In seedy downtown D.C. where teens scrape a living dealing drugs, Brown’s remark, “Poor kids aren’t taught to envision the end game” refers to crime’s irreversible stain on one’s future. Jailed for 17 years for armed bank robbery, Brown learnt chess while locked up, and seeing himself in the unruly students he supervises in after-school detention and they, him, garners their respect in a way even their principal (Lisa Gay Hamilton) cannot.
Before long, all but the two hardiest boys, taciturn closet chess prodigy Tahime Sanders (Malcolm M. Mays) and pack leader Cliffton (Carlton Byrd) have bought in to the game of chess. While the film somewhat oversimplifies the certain travail of ingratiating the kids to the game and game strategy itself (there is no allusion to the touch-move rule, an ample metaphorical device), director and co-writer James Goldberger keeps proceedings well-oiled by the symbolic parallels between chess and survival (when Brown, overseeing a game, remarks “The king is your life. You lose the king, you lose your life,” there is a cut to one of his students as he is shot by drug cartels). And Brown’s lecture about drug-dealing “pawns” taking the rap for the supplier “King” is a spot-on observation from a former dealer.
Casting is airtight, as evinced in Cuba Gooding Jr.’s unembellished enactment of a world-weary man caught between the stigma of his criminal record and determination to make amends not only with his grown-up children – one of whom is in juvie for peddling narcotics – but with himself. Meanwhile, the neighborhood supplier (Richard T. Jones) and Brown’s former business partner tries to undo Brown’s redemptive deeds. Epiphany is one thing; living it is another.
Malcolm M. Mays excels at conjuring the heaviness of Tahime’s character, one so internally weighted with pent-up dismay at his cokehead mother (Paula Jai Parker) that speech seems a burden, eyes that have seen it all perpetually at half mast. And yet, Tahime has a rare inborn talent in the game of chess: precocity.
Cliché threatens to override a so far entertaining story when focus shifts from Brown to Tahime’s internal grappling with his dreams of playing in a regional chess tournament versus his hand-to-mouth socio-economic environ – a common running theme of inspirational films like ‘Precious’, ‘The Pursuit of Happyness’ and ‘Akeelah and the Bee’. And yet, ‘Life of a King’ doesn’t have those lofty, overcoming-the-odds aspirations, and therein lies its unassuming charm. No, as Brown says, “championship isn’t the end game; championship is a byproduct.”
In fact, he sticks by this moral with a mulishness that, at certain points of the film, makes you hard-pressed not to roll your eyes – even restating it on the radio. Okay, we got it the first time. The film could be faulted for being formulaic, but it stays truthful to the story of Eugene Brown, whose Big Chair Chess Club (named after the famous Anacostia landmark) went on to form partnerships with seven local schools and a juvenile detention center.
The values of friendship, premeditation and self-belief (“It’s not whether you can or you can’t, but whether you will or you won’t”) are imparted through characters who themselves struggle to understand them, and in this way the film teaches by empathy rather than being preachy, as did the real Eugene Brown. What could be a better way to deliver a message?
Sure, life’s lot of death, tragedy and illness can easily upset Brown’s tidy planning-ahead notion, but for a film it makes a convincing case.