The appearance of important and prominent Black characters (or historical figures) in chess filmography is quite extensive. In the famous 1993 film Searching for Bobby Fischer, we see a fictional character, a chess player in New York’s famous Washington Square, played by Laurence Fishburne. This character is actually an amalgam of three real Black Americans who influenced Josh Waitzkin in real life: an older gentleman named Jerry who encouraged Josh to take risks in chess and “play the man, not the board,” Poe McClinton, and Vincent Livermore – the latter two being more like the actual movie representation, expert strength chess hustlers.
Aside from this, we have many movies that have portrayed often true stories of Black people who have had their life transformed and have also transformed the lives of many others, through chess. Volumes could be done on this, but below is a quick exploration of some of these titles:
The made for TV movie The Mighty Pawns (1987) was a story inspired by the true-life exploits of the Roberts Vaux Junior High School chess team of Philadelphia Pennsylvania. They were a team of young black students from a predominantly black neighbourhood, overcoming the stereotypes of both society at large, as well as the bias of the common chess circles at the time. The team won the National Junior High School Chess Championship seven years in a row from 1977-1983.
Fresh (1994) was a fictional representation of how chess can be relevant in terms of life skills in underprivileged societal settings, and was used to overcome the obstacles that far too many African-Americans have had to struggle through.
Knights of the South Bronx (2005) was based on the true story of David MacEnulty who led the elementary children of the Bronx Community Elementary School to win New York City as well as State Championships. This story demonstrates how equality is achieved over the chess boards and has led many Black young students, who have grown up under harsh conditions, for an opportunity of Black Americans in the big city.
Life of a King (2013) was the true story of Eugene Brown, a Black American who overcame a rocky past and misled youth due to environmental inequalities. He became a leader and inspiration for inner-city youths in Washington D.C. as a living example to escape the otherwise more negative fates that have been stereotypically assigned to them. He is played by Cuba Gooding Jr.
Queen of Katwe (2016) is the beautiful and inspiring true story of Phiona Mutesi. Directed by Mira Nair, this film in particular is one we can recommend to children. Born in Uganda, Mutesi grew up in incredible poverty in the slum of Katwe, outside of Uganda’s capital Kampala, to surpass all odds and become the first titled female Ugandan chess player. This is well summarized by a young girl’s remark that “in chess, the little one can become the big one.” It is a nice representation of the possibilities that chess opens not only in the mind/development/growth but also in real-world accomplishment and breadth.
Each of the films above have an important contribution to the understanding and importance of chess to the Black community and vice versa, and they are all worth seeing for various reasons. Filmography is one thing, as there is sometimes a fictional twist even to the true stories, but best is complete actual facts.
This article is part of a series of pieces exploring chess in the context of Black History Month. Click on Black History Month to learn more about Black chess players, the African history of chess, and other issues relating to chess and race.