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2012 SLIFF: Documentaries touch on race; feature film has fun

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 13, 2012 - Brooklyn Castle: We are well into the narrative of "Brooklyn Castle," a compelling documentary film about an astonishingly successful chess program at an inner-city middle school, when the students and teachers we have come to admire are faced with a crisis: budget cuts caused by the recession threaten the program that has won more than two dozen national chess championships.

The students, with the help of program advisers, rally to the cause by coming up with schemes to raise money and by petitioning the city's school board to spare chess from the cuts. They are partly successful, enough so that the chess team can make a few trips to national competitions.

Filmmaker Katie Dellamaggiore spent several years at Intermediate School 318, in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg, and traveling with the chess team to tournaments in such cities as Minneapolis and Dallas. The resulting film is rich in character-based drama.

We meet faculty members such as chess teacher Elizabeth Vicary, whose enthusiasm for sharing what she knows about chess with young people is electrifying. And we meet students like Rochelle Ballantyne, who dreams of becoming the first female African American chess master, and Pobo Efekor, who responds to the budget cuts by running for class president so he can take his case to the politicians.

At IS 138, the chess players are the stars. Or, as the principal exclaims with delight, "the nerds are the athletes." The pride in intellectual achievement, the documentary shows, extends to the student body as a whole, many of whom aspire to go on to top high schools and colleges.

Not all the stories in "Brooklyn Castle" are tales of victory, but on the whole the narrative is uplifting and inspiring. The families of more than 60 percent of the students at IS 318 live below the poverty line, but "Brooklyn Castle" shows that good public schools can thrive anywhere. It helps to have a really first-rate chess program.

-- Reviewed by Harper Barnes

Envisioning Home

The rent strike in St. Louis public housing in the late 1960s brought together two remarkable people, lawyer Richard Baron and tenant activist Jean King. They would become major figures in the national transition from high-rise government-funded housing projects to lower density mixed-income developments that combine public and private financing. In the aptly titled, richly peopled documentary "Envisioning Home," producer-writer Daniel Blake Smith and director Jason Epperson tell a good story well.  They begin with a potent evocation of the racial and economic tension in the late 1960s that erupted in widespread rioting in cities across the country -- but not in St. Louis. See accompanying story.

-- Reviewed by Harper Barnes

Booker's Place

In 1965, as we learn quickly in the provocative "Booker's Place," a documentary filmmaker for NBC named Frank De Felitta went to Greenwood, Miss., a flashpoint for clashes between civil rights activists and police and a center of Ku Klux Klan activity. He made a TV film called "Mississippi: A Self Portrait," which mostly featured white people insisting they loved blacks while unconsciously, with almost every word they spoke, demonstrating the opposite.

But among the people he interviewed was Booker Wright, an ambitious black man who ran his own bar and cafe for a black clientele during the day and worked as a waiter at a fancy white supper club at night. For the camera, Wright spoke with alarming frankness about his work as a waiter and described how he just kept smiling as some of the patrons abused him and called him racist names. "The meaner the man be," said Wright, "the more you smile."

After the film was aired, Wright lost his waiter's job and was brutally beaten. Filmmaker De Felitta, who had worried about including the controversial footage of Booker Wright but had decided that Wright knew exactly what he was doing, was seized with guilt, and he never really got over it. His son, Raymond De Felitta, also became a filmmaker, and in 2011 he decided to dig deeper into the story of his father and Booker Wright. Fairly soon, he learned that Wright had been murdered in 1973.

Accompanied by Wright's granddaughter, a writer, the younger De Felitta went to Greenwood to discover what had happened.

He interviewed dozens of people, black and white, including Booker Wright's daughters, and the result is an absorbing story of how the South once was, and how it is today, with strong emphasis on the virtual slavery of black life in the Deep South as late as the 1960s. De Felitta weaves in footage from his father's documentary, and accompanies his film with Mississippi Delta blues music.

Despite an occasional tendency toward heavy handedness -- we hear Booker Wright speak of smiling through his pain, and are shown several stern faces representing contemporary blacks -- "Booker's Place" is a dramatically strong film about racial oppression, and it leaves us with nothing but admiration for Booker Wright. In a real sense, he succeeded in his most fervent dream -- to make sure his children and grandchildren did not have to suffer as he had.

-- Reviewed by Harper Barnes

Mariachi Gringo

This film provides a twist on the familiar “immigrant to America follows his dream” story. Edward, a depressed young man (played by Shawn Ashmore) living with his parents in a small Kansas town, finds his escape by bonding with a mariachi musician in the town’s Mexican restaurant. He is inspired to travel to the ancient Mexican city of Guadalajara – where mariachi music still has a powerful presence.

In his quest to become an authentic mariachi musician, Edward meets Lilia, an attractive Mexican woman who yearns to return to the U.S to follow her own dream. The plot is familiar and a bit cliché, but there’s plenty of mariachi music to keep the pace going. Another musical highlight are several fine performances by Latin Grammy winning singer Lila Downs, who has appeared recently at the Sheldon Concert Hall.

--Reviewed by Terry Perkins

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. He has written for the St. Louis Beacon since 2009. Terry's other writing credits in St. Louis include: the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis American, the Riverfront Times, and St. Louis magazine. Nationally, Terry writes for DownBeat magazine, OxfordAmerican.org and RollingStone.com, among others.

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