‘Critical Thinking’ follows the story of a group of students who compete in the national chess championship. Set in 1998, it begins with these underdogs and how there seems to be no prospect of them ever getting into chess let alone compete or win in the championships. But the influence of high school teacher Mario Martinez changes everything. While on the surface, the film looks like a typical sports drama that follows the rags-to-riches model of inspiring the audience, it goes much deeper than that. With the stories of a bunch of underprivileged students of color, it emphasizes the fact that genius and talent are not restricted by race. It also portrays the game of chess to the audience like never before. All these things combined make us wonder if the film is really based on a true story, as it claims. If so, then how close does it come to reality? Let’s find out.
Is Critical Thinking based on a true story?
Yes, ‘Critical Thinking’ is based on the true story of a high school teacher named Mario Martinez who led the chess team of Miami Jackson High School to win a national championship. Martinez had been a chess enthusiast but had never played it competitively. At the school, he would spend the lunch hour playing chess with another teacher. Their matches captured the interest of the students who would gather around them to watch and learn. Sometime later, the other teacher got transferred to a different school, but that didn’t put a stop to the games.
By then, the students had developed enough interest to challenge Martinez to chess games. What started as a pastime during the lunch hour turned into an after-school chess club. The team was named The Generals, and soon enough, they started winning competitions. They won the county, and in their first year, they shared the state championship. Soon enough, the nationals were theirs to claim too. All of this happened with Martinez’s critical thinking strategy that he taught to his students. “Chess is a way of looking at choices and realizing, ‘If I do this, then this will happen. If I do that, then that will happen,'” Martinez said. “Choices have consequences. That’s critical thinking. That’s analytical. And that’s life,” he said.
Chess also became a way for the students to chart new territories. “The stereotypic chess player was a nerdy, white kid in preppie clothes,” Martinez said. “Many had private coaches and tutors, and they thought they would just wipe us out. But we beat them. We broke the mold. A lot of people thought poor kids were dumb. We proved that, given a chance, every kid is capable.” Proving his point were students like Rodelay Medina, who won the 2000 national championship in the expert division, and Marcel Martinez, who would battle multiple opponents blindfolded. Chess also became a way of life for the students who found themselves changed by this new interest. Oelmy Paniagua, whose character is portrayed in the film by Jorge Lendeborg Jr., recounts that even though he had taught himself chess by watching his grandparents play, he had never thought about joining the high school team until a teacher gave him “the life talk” during a suspension. “From there on, I was hooked,” Paniagua says. “I pretty much never got in trouble again.”
This movie-worthy story first came to the attention of Carla Berkowitz while she was reading the Miami Herald’s Tropic magazine in 1997. An article written by John Dorschner, about the lives of the students at Miami Jackson Senior High School and how they became chess champions, caught her interest and she started pursuing the idea of turning it into a film. She got in touch with Mario Martinez and bought the life rights for the movie, believing that it was the kind of story that the world needed to hear. The project took twenty years to get into production, but it eventually happened when John Leguizamo came on board. Martinez was consulted during the making of the film, and so were his students- Oelmy “Ito” Paniagua, Gil Luna, Rodelay Medina, Sedrick Roundtree, and Marcel Martinez- whose stories feature in it.
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