The idea for Brooklyn Castle came from a 2007 article I read in The New York Times about a talented chess player at Edward R. Murrow High School in Midwood, Brooklyn, a neighborhood near the one where I grew up. At the time, Murrow had the best high school chess team in the nation, and the team was featured in The Kings of New York, a then-new book by sportswriter Michael Weinreb. I had always been interested in making a film about Brooklyn, but I wanted to tell a story that people didn’t expect. There are so many negative, clichéd stereotypes about Brooklyn, and I was proud that the best young chess players in the country were right here in my hometown.
I met with Weinreb, and he told me a lot of fascinating things about scholastic chess and his experiences writing the book. But because the kids from Murrow were already getting a lot of attention, he recommended I check out I.S. 318, the intermediate school that was feeding many top chess players into Murrow. I.S. 318 was featured in one chapter of his book and he wished he had spent more time with the chess team there.
I made an appointment to meet I.S. 318 assistant principal and chess coordinator John Galvin and chess teacher and chess coach Elizabeth Vicary. As soon as I walked into the school, which is just minutes from where I live in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, I knew that it was special. Chess trophies and banners lined the hallways, and up in the third floor chess room, kids were engaged and happy learning chess. Vicary is such a compelling teacher that it was riveting to watch her teach. I’m not a chess player, but I’ve always been fascinated by this complex and beautiful ancient game. I was hooked.
I talked with the kids one-on-one to learn about their goals and struggles both on and off the chessboard. Alexis talked about wanting to get into a top high school; Patrick saw chess as a way to improve his concentration; and Rochelle wanted to be the first African-American female master. Pobo had not yet decided to run for school president at the time, but he had such a boisterous personality and big, warm heart that I knew we had to follow him. And then Vicary told me about Justus, a rising star in the chess world who would be starting at 318 in the fall. It made sense to track his journey as the team’s new top-rated player just as Rochelle was graduating and heading to high school.
We got set to follow the journeys of these five over the course of the 2009-2010 school year, but then in August 2009, just one month before we were to begin shooting, I received a concerned call from John Galvin. He said, “Maybe you don’t want to shoot the film anymore, because we’re not going to be able to compete in nationals. The school just lost over a million dollars.” How was it that the best junior high school chess team didn’t have the funds to compete at the highest level? That just didn’t seem fair. I said, “Thanks for letting me know, but of course we’re going to make the film. Now there’s an even bigger story to tell.”
When lawmakers and school leaders are faced with drastic budget cuts, they know they can’t cut core programs like reading, math and science, and they have to pay teachers, so the first things to go are programs that are seen as “extras.” But what one person might consider an extra, like chess, might be a kid’s reason for showing up for school. The chess program has infused all of I.S. 318 with a culture of success and has directly impacted the lives of thousands of students. Looking at an afterschool program as a line item in a budget, there’s no way to understand how much it is worth. I hope that after seeing Brooklyn Castle, people will begin to understand the value of afterschool programs and how chess teaches students valuable critical-thinking skills and helps to build self-confidence, self-awareness, character, curiosity and resilience—traits that ultimately contribute to success in adulthood.
I didn’t plan to make a film about the education system, but I feel pretty strongly now that if we expect public education to work, we have to invest in it. We can’t cut programs and resources and then ask why students aren’t succeeding. We’re always hearing that the system is broken and we have to come up with an entirely new model. But why do we have to start from scratch? Why can’t we identify programs that are working and use them as examples? I also find it frustrating to hear the tired story about lazy, overpaid teachers who are just waiting to retire and collect their pensions. I didn’t observe that at all with the teachers at I.S. 318. It’s nice to be able to show teachers at a below-the-poverty-line school who really, truly care.
I hope that audiences who see this film are inspired to do what they can in their community: Teachers may want to create new afterschool programs; parents might go to more PTA meetings and get more involved; or kids may imagine that their biggest dreams are possible. Even if you’re not a teacher, a parent or a student, I think Brooklyn Castle will make you feel good. It will make you feel proud that stories like the story of the I.S. 318 chess team can be found in public schools all over the United States.
— Katie Dellamaggiore, Director/Producer