|Jon's got director Katie Dellamaggiore and Oghenakpobo “Pobo” Efekoro, one of the kids featured in her documentary, Brooklyn Castle:
Brooklyn Castle is the remarkable and improbable true story of I.S. 318 in Brooklyn. The school, where 65% of students live below the federal poverty level, has the highest ranked junior high chess team in the nation. The heart of the film is the engaging young students who populate the team: Rochelle, who has the goal of becoming the first female African-American chess master; Pobo, the team's charismatic leader; Justus, an entering student who must manage the high expectations that come with achieving master status at an early age; Alexis, who feels the pressure of his immigrant parents' desire for him to realize the American dream; Patrick, who uses chess to help overcome his ADHD; and James, the young rapping maestro and budding chess talent; among several others.
The 37 reviews at RottenTomatoes have it at 97%. Here's the start of the NYTimes review:
The child chess champions in the irresistible documentary “Brooklyn Castle” don’t take long, as one of these sweetpeas likes to say, to crush you. Year after year, these big brains and little bodies at Intermediate School 318 in Williamsburg win chess tournaments, and their winning streak continues on screen. They are a remarkable, funny, inspiring, at times devastating group. Through the eyes of the director Katie Dellamaggiore, you come to know these children, their teachers and parents as you witness their pulse-quickening matches and tears splashed on the family dining-room table. There’s smiling uplift here, but the road is seldom easy and sometimes brutal.
Rochelle Ballantyne dreams of being the first female African-American chess master; Alexis Paredes hopes to be a lawyer or doctor so he can ease the burdens of his immigrant parents. The dreadlocked newcomer, Justus Williams, might be a chess genius; Patrick Johnston, who has attention issues, just wants to raise his ranking. Pobo Efekoro helps his mother with her day care business. He doesn’t mind pushing around a vacuum cleaner for her; she’s trying hard, he says, and, well, his father is dead. By the end of the movie, Pobo is writing a letter to politicians about budget cuts, reminding them of their “moral responsibility” and well on his way from easygoing child to bright light and civic-minded citizen.
“Brooklyn Castle” is partly about the why and how these children became conquerors, but its reach is higher because it looks at pedagogy, politics and their intersection. As Pobo suggests, that means it’s also about moral choices. Providentially for her narrative if not the school, Ms. Dellamaggiore — who produced “Brooklyn Castle” with her husband-editor, Nelson Dellamaggiore, and her brother-cinematographer, Brian Schulz — began shooting after the 2008 economic downturn. (Nothing makes for documentary drama like a budget cut that might wipe out the subject of your project.) Bluntly put, to watch a child worry that his school’s marching band and chess program will be cut is to witness the further collapse of a dream far bigger than he is: that of quality public education as a democratic ideal...
Found a couple other links worth looking at, including Pobo's Change.org petition (started 8 months ago):
My name is Oghenakpobo Efekoro, but most people call me Pobo. I am a 15-year-old sophomore at Forest Hills High School, but I’m better known for being an alumnus of Brooklyn, New York’s I.S.318, which has the best junior high school chess program in the United States. It was an honor and a privilege to be a member of that team for the three years I was a student at 318. We won some championships and worked hard to be the best. But even as we racked up titles year after year and filled showcases with first place trophies, it became increasingly hard for 318 to send us to nationals. The team grew used to hearing a reoccurring term – “budget cuts” – and we quickly learned that they could keep us from competing outside the city and state. It wasn’t long before that phrase – “budget cuts,” the most dreadful and repeated words I heard in my last two years at 318 – would catch up to us...
Looking through all this stuff, I'm torn between being impressed and "aw, aren't young activists sweet?"
I’m now an assistant chess coach with the 318 chess team. I get to wake up every Saturday morning to take the new generation of 318ers to tournaments and analyze their games. They keep getting shorter, or maybe I’m just getting taller. The kids are great players, getting stronger by the day, but I still see the effects of annual budget cuts on their hard work. And still, 318 struggles to send its players to compete, even as it helps them to be the best they can be.
Education is not a bargaining chip to be used by politicians. It is a necessity that ensures the next generation can excel in an increasingly competitive world. It is a pathway, a gateway to success. Everything begins with a good education – and that means every aspect of education, including extracurricular activities and learning programs that happen after the “school day” has ended. Budget cuts tear through districts, forcing schools to do away with programs like the 318 chess team, a success story by any measure with more than 30 national titles, the most decorated middle school chess team the United States has ever seen, and a group that continues to win despite the economic challenges they face. I hope that one day, when I am successful in a presidential run for the second time in my life, I can look back and realize that I’ve made the phrase “budget cuts” obsolete...
Anyway, it should be a nice way to end out the week.