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John Leguizamo Is Directing Movie About Miami Jackson Chess Champs

Actor John Leguizamo will direct and star in Critical Thinking, a film about Miami Jackson High's chess champs in the late '90s.
Actor John Leguizamo will direct and star in Critical Thinking, a film about Miami Jackson High's chess champs in the late '90s. Photo by Gage Skidmore / Flickr
South Florida entrepreneur Carla Berkowitz was flipping through the Miami Herald's Tropic magazine one morning in 1997 when she came across an article about teenage chess players. The story, written by John Dorschner, chronicled the lives of students at Miami Jackson Senior High School as they competed in statewide and national chess tournaments. Led by coach Mario Martinez, Jackson's team of mostly low-income, minority students became one of the best teams in the nation.

The story resonated so deeply with Berkowitz that she called the coach and eventually bought the life rights to the tale in hopes of someday producing a movie.

"I just felt this is a story that needs to be told," she says today. "The world needs to hear it."

While Berkowitz worked with a writer on the script, Hollywood producer Scott Rosenfelt says he unknowingly stumbled across the same story. On a trip to Miami in search of funding, he discovered Berkowitz was already working on a film about the chess champs.

"Lo and behold, somebody got me in touch with Carla, and we were like, 'Wait, we’re doing that,' and she was like, 'No, we’re doing that,'" he remembers.

Eventually, the two decided to team up and tackle the project together. More than a decade passed, but plans always fell through. A couple of years ago, Rosenfelt — who produced Mystic Pizza, Home Alone, and Teen Wolf — had a conversation with an old friend, actor John Leguizamo, who mentioned he'd always wanted to play a teacher.

"We brought John in, and we just started moving forward," Rosenfelt says.
click to enlarge Director John Leguizamo with producers Carla Berkowitz and Scott Rosenfelt. - COURTESY OF CARLA BERKOWITZ
Director John Leguizamo with producers Carla Berkowitz and Scott Rosenfelt.
Courtesy of Carla Berkowitz
Their movie, Critical Thinking (named for Coach Martinez's chess class), will begin filming this fall and is expected to be released in fall 2019. Leguizamo will direct and star in the film as the team's coach.

Berkowitz and Rosenfelt hope to shoot in Miami and have asked county commissioners for $100,000 in film incentives. The item is up for a vote Friday at a meeting of Miami-Dade's Economic Development and Tourism Committee.

Berkowitz, who befriended the chess players years ago and refers to them as her "adopted sons," hopes their story will resonate with audiences the same way it did with her.

"Amongst all the stuff that's happening around the state and world, this is a good story," she says. "This is what people write fiction about, and here it is, all true."
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Jessica Lipscomb is the former news editor of Miami New Times.