(2013) "Just keep your eye on the end game," advises Searcy (Dennis Haysbert), the chess man serving a life sentence, to Eugene Brown (Cuba Gooding Jr), before handing over a black royal chess piece to the departing fellow chess player: "Take care of the king. Everything else follows."
Released after seventeen years in prison for armed robbery, Eugene seeks a job (turned down for being an ex-felon) in an inner-city neighborhood of Washington, DC, along with finding his daughter Katrina (Rachae Thomas), a pre-law student in college. Unable to forgive her father for abandoning her and her younger brother Marco (Jordan Calloway), who's in jail for selling drugs, she initially dismisses his appeal of "trying to make things right."
With his buddy Billy West's recommendation, Eugene applies for work as a janitor (marking the "no" box for the question as to whether he'd been convicted of a crime) at Maud Alton High School. Formerly a member of Brown's crew, Perry (Richard T. Jones), who has become the kingpin of the streets, greets "Mean Gene" with a promise: "If you need anything … I owe you that."
When the school's detention monitor, Ms Gadbaw, suddenly quits, unable to deal with the disrespectful attitude of the students, Principal Sheila King (LisaGay Hamilton) asks her custodian, Mr Brown, in the hallway to please cover until she can find a substitute. When she returns to the classroom, she finds everyone seated and quiet. Impressed, she assigns him to the job; Eugene stands up to the toughest boys, Clifton (Carlton Byrd) and Tahime "T" Sanders (Malcolm Mays).
When no one accepts his offer to learn the game of chess, Eugene consents to a challenge from Percy "Peanut" Hall (Kevin Hendricks) at a game of cards. "Here's the deal," says Eugene: "If you win, the whole class gets to do whatever they want for the rest of detention. But if I win, you learn a new game."
Peanut has to pick the red ace from three cards being shuffled on the table, like three-card monte, as Eugene singsongs: "My name is Peter Paul. I came from Montreal. I came to play 'em all…." Inspired by actual events in the life of Eugene Brown (who appears briefly in the final scenes registering contestants), the drama was directed by Jake Goldberger, who co-wrote the screenplay with David Scott and Dan Wetzel: a passionate and principled picture about changing minds and overcoming rules intended to prevent certain people from getting into the game, that concludes somewhat predictably in a major chess tournament.
Eugene attempts to get the attention of Clifton, who had been using the detention-center students as customers for weed, by calling him a pawn of his supplier King Perry: "Now, if you want to keep making the same mistakes for a king who could care less about your ass, out there is the board to do it on. But if you want to learn how to make the right maneuvers, this is where you do it. Right here on this board."
Eugene prepares the students for an open tournament in Virginia: "You must think before you move…. Y'all got to start paying attention, man. In here and in life. 'Cause out in the streets, it's not checkmate. It's incarceration. It's a wheelchair." Sometimes it's a coffin.
"You don't give a damn about rules," he criticizes Tahime and the others. Tahime then makes his move on the board. "Where did you learn how to do that?" asks Eugene. "Told you, it's just a simple stupid game, man."
When Eugene tries to meet with his son in jail, Marco refuses to give his father a chance: "You never taught me nothing." After receiving a notification about her detention monitor's past, Ms King informs Eugene: "You lied to me, Mr Brown. I have to let you go."
Perry proffers Eugene, who had taken the fall for the gang during an attempted bank heist, a monetary gift of appreciation without strings: "Look, it's hard out there for an ex-con. And the system's not set up to support going straight."
Playing a chess game in the park with Eugene, Peanut admits: "And T, man, he's just as scared to be on the streets as me, but he's not going to say nothing." Purchasing a foreclosed residence, Eugene induces kids to show up at the Big Chair Chess Club. Then out of carelessness, the house is trashed, and Eugene, thinking he's regarded as a looney for trying to convince the kids to listen to him, blames himself for a tragedy.
Repairs and redemption follow with Tahime attending sessions. "I've done all the dumb stuff that y'all have done twice," Eugene tells his chess players about stealing and running a crew: "Some of it three times." Tahime confides to girlfriend Michelle (Pepi Sonuga) that he's going to kill his junkie mom's boyfriend.
Not a matter of can or can't, Eugene confronts Tahime, unstudied and undisciplined but possessing natural talent at chess, with a challenge to become like Maurice Ashley, the first African-American grandmaster: "It's about whether you will or you won't." In Virginia, Eugene's members of the chess club compete but are robbed of the championship when the administrator disqualifies some of the players for forging consent forms and not having birth certificates: "Rules are rules."
Given an opportunity to make his case of Tahime's having been cheated over the air on a radio station, Eugene instead admits that the team has "to beat them at their own game. Their own rules. We didn't do that…. We can't change the rules, Tahime. We have to learn to win within them."
Some rules are broken in making the narrative believable, such as no mention of where or how Tahime was introduced to chess before demonstrating his keen ability in the detention room. Also, why are the same kids always in detention? For example, Michelle says she was once late for class but won't make that mistake again. Third, after Eugene loses his job at the school, what does he do to earn a living and afford purchase of the foreclosed dwelling for chess-club meetings?
On the PBS NewsHour, host Hari Sreenivasan introduces a segment on giving ex-convicts a better chance at finding jobs: "Now, a move to make it easier for people who have been convicted of a crime to find employment after being released from prison. Several states and municipalities are preventing employers from asking about criminal convictions up front. The so-called ban the box movement would eliminate a check-box on initial job applications."
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