Inspirational teacher/competitive sports movies all follow pretty much the same trajectory—kids defy and then accept the teachers’ knowledge and experience, then they get the encouragement they need to achieve success. Life of a King, a drama inspired by the true story of Eugene Brown (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) who taught chess to inner-city high school kids, is no different. But this film, directed and co-written by Jake Goldberger, remains stirring even as it adheres to the genre’s familiar tropes and conventions. Brown coaches his students that they must learn to win within the rules.
As the film opens, Brown is released from prison. He gets a maintenance job at an inner-city school, and is asked to substitute as a monitor for a detention hall. In the classroom, he sees an opportunity to help kids like Peanut (Kevin Hendricks), Tahime (Malcolm M. Mays), and Clifton (Carlton Byrd), who are wasting their potential by dealing drugs, or otherwise putting their lives at risk. He hopes to teach them chess and its inherent strategies—how to think one move ahead, and not make a mistake that will cost them their future. It’s a simplistic, but potent metaphor.
Brown also learns to take responsibility for his actions. When the school principal (LisaGay Hamilton) discovers Brown lied about his felony conviction on this job application, she must end the chess program. However, she encourages him to open an off-site chess club for the students to attend, which he does.
Another subplot involves Brown trying to repair his relationship and “make things right” with his own children, whom he has long neglected.
Goldberger’s film falters because it shoehorns too many social issues into 100 minutes. Life of a King gets a bit didactic when Brown espouses his concepts of discipline or talks about “changing minds” on a radio show, but his points that talent overrides race and class are important and essential. The film also is heavy-handed as Tahime grapples with an addicted, uncaring mother and her abusive boyfriend, while Clifton schemes to make some easy money illegally. The film recovers when Tahime starts playing chess competitively and his passion for the game comes across. These inspirational moment are effective, even tear-jerking.
Life of a King succeed mostly because Cuba Gooding, Jr. is terrific as Brown. He is appropriately contrite with his children, and rousing with the students. But it is Gooding’s unspoken moments that show Brown’s true character. The actor uses his furrowed brow and resigned look to communicate his disdain for his situation as an ex-con, or his negative attitude towards Perry (Richard T. Jones), the local drug kingpin who tries to buy his loyalty. And Gooding’s reactions are best in a scene where Brown takes Tahime to visit his mentor, Searcy (Dennis Haysbert) in prison seeking chess advice. Gooding invests himself heavily as Brown and plays the role with conviction. His strong performance helps this familiar story thrive and flourish, right up to the satisfying conclusion.
Life of a King opens today in Philly area theaters.