Film & TV

John Leguizamo's New Chess Movie Is "a Love Letter to Miami Jackson Senior High"

Actor John Leguizamo will direct and star in Critical Thinking, a film about Miami Jackson High's chess champs in the late '90s.
For one day only, a carpeted, fourth-floor ballroom at the Hialeah Park racetrack transformed into the site of a '90s-era high-school chess competition.

Teenage extras in flannel shirts and striped polos thoughtfully moved pawns across their boards. In a back corner, the cinematographer worked to find the right lighting. A makeup artist painted an actor's lips with the perfect shade of fleshy pink.

"If you have an iWatch on, guys, take it off!" a woman wearing a headset shouted.

It was 14 days into a monthlong shoot for Critical Thinking, an upcoming feature film based on the story of real-life chess champions from Miami Jackson Senior High. The project has been in the works for more than 20 years: Miami movie producer Carla Berkowitz obtained the rights after reading an article about the chess team in the Miami Herald's Tropic magazine in 1997.

But it wasn't until actor John Leguizamo recently got involved that the film began to take shape. After he committed to star in and direct the movie, shooting began in November and wrapped last weekend. Critical Thinking is expected to hit theaters sometime in 2019.

In September, Berkowitz and coproducer Scott Rosenfelt, who made Home Alone, asked Miami-Dade County for $100,000 in film incentives so they could shoot the movie here. The funding was a fraction of what would have been available just a few years ago, before Florida discontinued its film incentive program, but Berkowitz says she couldn't imagine shooting in another city.

"A hundred percent it’s a Miami story, and it’s a love letter to Miami Jackson Senior High School and Miami in the '90s," she says. "How could I go somewhere else?"

The movie centers on five of the chess players from Miami Jackson's team in 1998: Oelmy "Ito" Paniagua, Gil Luna, Rodelay Medina, Sedrick Roundtree, and Marcel Martinez. As it turns out, four of the actors portraying those characters have connections to Miami.

Jorge Lendeborg Jr., the star of the new Transformers movie, who plays Paniagua in Critical Thinking, went to American Senior High in Hialeah. Miami resident Jeffrey Batista, whose career has been in Spanish-language media, plays the role of Martinez. Angel Bismark Curiel, who appears as Medina, attended Miami Arts Charter School. And actor William Hochman, in the role of Luna, says his mother grew up in Kendall.

Because accuracy is important to the filmmakers, the stars of the movie have competed against one another in multiple chess games since meeting a few weeks ago. On set between takes, Curiel ranks his costars on their abilities: Corwin Tuggles is the best, followed by Hochman and Lendeborg. "I think I might be fourth," Curiel calculates.

Hochman issues a challenge: “I think you and Jorge need to play."

“I will be honest: I destroyed him in L.A.," Curiel says proudly. "We played a game — I gave him the smoke."
click to enlarge Producer Carla Berkowitz with the five real-life Miami Jackson chess players. - COURTESY OF CARLA BERKOWITZ
Producer Carla Berkowitz with the five real-life Miami Jackson chess players.
courtesy of Carla Berkowitz
Throughout the filming, the real-life chess champions — now in their late 30s and early 40s — have been onboard as consultants. Batista, who is starring in his first feature film, says he instantly bonded with Marcel Martinez, the 1998 national chess champion he plays in the movie.

"We share the same story because, like me, he’s Cuban. He came to the U.S. at 17, and I came to the U.S. when I was turning 18," Batista says. "For me, doing this movie basically means what for him was to become the national champion in chess. It's the ultimate dream to be in a movie like this."

Mario Martinez, the history teacher who started the chess class at Miami Jackson, also played a key role behind the scenes. Recently retired, he says he's excited to see his students recognized in a Hollywood movie.

"I always felt it was a great story because we broke all stereotypes," he says. "Diverse backgrounds, ethnic groups all came together. Teaching the class was wonderful."

A former student, Ester Zaldivar Acevedo, reunited with Martinez on set at Hialeah Park, where her teenage son Bryan got to be an extra in one of the competition scenes. The Critical Thinking class, she says, was "the blessing" of her high-school years.

"It kept me central, it kept me focused, it kept me out of trouble," Acevedo says. "We were inner-city kids, you know? Low-income, raised by a single mom."

Paniagua, one of the five real-life chess players depicted in the film, says he joined Martinez's class after a teacher gave him "the life talk" during a weeklong in-school suspension. As a kid, he had taught himself chess by watching his grandparents play in the Dominican Republic. It was a skill he never thought much about until joining the high school team.

"From there on, I was hooked," Paniagua says. "I pretty much never got in trouble again."

For the past 20 years, Paniagua and his classmates have stayed in touch with producer Berkowitz, who kept promising their movie would somehow get made. As time went on, that possibility seemed less and less likely.

"I never thought it was gonna happen, but Carla always had faith," Paniagua says. "When I met John Leguizamo, when they called me in to meet him, I’m like, 'Oh, this is real. This is gonna happen.'"

Looking back, Berkowitz says the project was worth the wait because it finally landed with the right people. The story deserved justice, she says, and the students deserved to see their movie done right.

"It's always been about those five boys," she says. "It’s never been about anyone else."