You have seen this story before, ad nausea. A gutsy yet compassionate teacher takes a job working at an inner-city school and inspires a cast of potential addicts and dealers into model students. He or she equips them with the tools to combat the danger in their lives through some sort of reformation, like poetry, sports or a spelling bee. We have seen these tales told on the big and small screens so often that we know their didactic formula by heart. And therein lies the problem. If we know exactly what a story is going to provide, there must be a hook to engage us in the plight of the characters – both the educator and his or her pupils.
There is nothing wrong with watching a group of misfits find purpose and overcome adversity, unless the writer and director does little to differentiate their story from better works that have come before. If so, it becomes a patronizing, lifeless after-school special. Life of a King, a new drama inspired by true events, has all of the elements from the rote formula above, but little that makes it stand on its own from Lean on Me, Dangerous Minds and other facsimiles.
Life of a King tells the story of Eugene Brown, an ex-convict who established a chess club for struggling students in the Washington D.C. area. Brown, played by Cuba Gooding Jr., had been incarcerated for 17 years for a bank robbery gone awry. During lock-up, he befriended a chess grandmaster, Searcy (Dennis Haysbert). Upon Brown’s release, Searcy gives him a freshly carved king’s piece, which serves as both an inspiration for the ex-con and a calculated plot device. “Take care of the king,” Searcy tells him at the start. “Everything else follows.”
Brown struggles to find a job upon release and fibs his applications to become a janitor at an underprivileged school, a place where the kids come from poor, addled families and the teachers are likely making less than their students tied to the drug trade. When school principal Sheila King (LisaGay Hamilton) notices Brown’s street credibility and his natural way of speaking to delinquent students stuck in detention, she puts him in charge of the unruly group. And what lessons does Brown decide to affect their lives with? Chess.
Life of a King is a safe, neutered, simplistic re-telling of a particularly noble endeavour. With these D.C. students, Brown began an initiative called the Big Chair Chess Club. He bought a battered shelter and turned the space into a common area with several tables ready for games; soon, students were filling up the room to learn chess and home their technique. As fascinating a figure as Brown is – a man who followed a life of destitute crime to lead by example – formula follies his big-screen depiction.
Instead of detailing the character’s struggle and life of crime, Brown patronizes his students (and the audience) with rote chess metaphors to explain his circumstance, as well as their own. As Brown explains to his students, the square of gang life they occupy is like a chess board: they are all pawns, working together to protect their king and willing to sacrifice themselves in front of other better players. “One mistake and your life can be taken away,” he explains. The script’s frequent reliance on Brown’s sage wisdom through chess metaphors becomes tired very quickly and after a while, Brown sounds less like a real person and more like a fortune cookie.
Moreover, a subplot about Brown neglecting his two kids – including a younger son doing time in juvenile detention for selling drugs – in favour of helping his own students is, itself, neglected and almost dismissed from the running time. The man’s flawed but human qualities, primarily his relationships with old friends and family, are under-explored. The script may stick to a tried formula, but little of it rings true.
Life of a King also gives a vague characterization of Tahime Sanders (newcomer Malcolm M. Mays), a chess prodigy of Brown’s who became his school’s chess star. Tahime takes his teacher’s truism to envision the endgame – Brown’s motto is “Think before you move” – and contemplates chess with deep thought. However, Tahime is a muted and muddled character who shows great skill but does not have a drive or purpose. We learn too little about why chess became such a motivating and important factor in his life, unless it was merely as a distraction from his drug-addled home life. The character is unfinished and just as inadequately explored as Brown. It’s this very type of simplified characterization that keeps the film from striking a chord.
Even when it comes to the later scenes at the chess tournament, Goldberger stalls the momentum, showing little directorial skill. A craftier filmmaker would make the one-on-one match of wits more psychologically engaging, gripping the audience with the mental gymnastics of the players, as well as ensuring we can follow and understand the stakes of the game on the board. In Life of a King, the final match-ups at the tournaments are shot casually, taking quick glimpses at a few moves in the climactic game. We watch Tahime and his opponent knock off a couple of pieces, finish the game and shake hands. There is no build-up, excitement or suspense, and so few moves occur that it is difficult to follow the rhythm of the game. Goldberger’s frequent reliance on watching the spectators watch the chess instead of having the audience follow the game is a limp way to drain the final act of suspense and clarity.
Cuba Gooding Jr. makes the best of Life of a King’s formula and bland characterization and like any great performance of an educator, he locks onto the actors playing his students, offering empathy and stern guidance. Although the script’s reliance on tired chess metaphors almost turns him into a patron saint, Gooding Jr. does a finer job showing the scars of a man who is trying to mend the mistakes he made than the script does. Furthermore, several of the young actors give memorable turns that could blossom into big careers, specifically Kevin Hendricks as loyal, eager-to-learn Peanut and Carlton Byrd as shrewd, fast-talking gang leader wannabe Clifton.
However, good performances can only take an uninspired screenplay so far. In an episode from the first season of The Wire, gang runner D’Angelo Barksdale teaches his friends the rules of chess while also explaining how power and control works in the Baltimore ghetto. Life of a King is, essentially, that extended chess metaphor for 100 minutes, except without that scene’s raw grit and originality. A good formula can only work if all of the pieces are there; however, even with Cuba Gooding Jr. turning in strong work, he does not have the support of the most important pieces – the director and writers.