By Jordan Elizabeth,
Common Sense Media Reviewer
Common Sense Media Reviewers
Underdog chess team defies odds but plays into stereotypes.
A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this movie.
Positive themes of teamwork and defiance against the odds are prevalent. While it exposes some of the broken systems in public education, it fails to fully portray its teen characters' humanity, contributing to problematic stereotypes.
Positive Role Models
Main characters are depicted as underdogs whose success goes against everyone's expectations. Some show determination, but most play into stereotypes associated with Black and Latinx teens from under-resourced communities -- i.e., unmotivated, unintelligent jokesters. That makes it seem like their success is because of some paradoxical talent instead of their strength of character. Failure to see these kids' humanity contributes to their stereotyping, on-screen and off.
Violence & Scariness
Frequent gun use. One character is abruptly shot and killed. Another character is punched and strangled to death. Parents emotionally abuse children.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
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Frequent use of the words "f--k," "s--t," and "ass."
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Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Adults get drunk. Underage characters smoke cigarettes. Drug dealing.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that Critical Thinking is a fact-based drama about a high school chess team from an underserved community that defies the odds to make it to the U.S. National Chess Championship. Directed by and starring John Leguizamo, the movie has frequent swearing ("f--k," "s--t," etc.), underage cigarette smoking, drug dealing, punching, strangling, and gun violence that results in death. Parents emotionally abuse children. While positive themes of teamwork and overcoming challenges are prevalent, the movie's Black and Latinx teens are stereotypically depicted as unintelligent with little work ethic and their success as an anomaly. Rachel Bay Jones and Michael Kenneth Williams co-star.
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Where to Watch
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What's the Story?
In CRITICAL THINKING, teacher Mr. T (John Leguizamo) oversees an unofficial detention hall at Miami Jackson Senior High School, where students are sent if they're deemed troublesome. Mr. T seizes the opportunity to start a chess team, all while navigating limited resources, a school with little faith in his students' abilities, and the stressors of his students' turbulent personal lives. When the team starts to succeed, the students come up with creative fundraisers to pay for travel and lodging at their competitions. But none of this is easy. One teen faces pressures at home from an emotionally abusive father who resents his son's talents. Another is pulled into dealing drugs to make ends meet. All the while, Mr. T is the loving, encouraging adult they crave.
Is It Any Good?
This drama is the classic story of an underdog team overcoming the odds and making it all the way; unfortunately, it falls back on stereotypical characterizations to tell its tale. The Miami Jackson team seems to be in this position because its members -- Black and Latinx teens from under-resourced communities -- have historically underestimated identities. The film plays on the biases that are often held about these identities by depicting the teens as shiftless and unfocused. They're careless in their fundraising efforts, they try to pass notes during tournaments, and they use the threat of physical violence to intimidate their opponents.
Their chess skills are an afterthought, making their success feel like an anomaly. And it certainly doesn't help that a White teen joins the team as they gain momentum and becomes their shining star -- teaching the other kids new chess moves and giving them vocabulary lessons. He's the only teen character whose background, personal life, and stressors aren't explored. So while Critical Thinking is diverse in its casting and exposes some of the broken systems in public education, it misses the mark in humanizing its characters. The failure to see these kids' humanity contributes to their stereotyping, on-screen and off.
Talk to Your Kids About ...
Families can talk about how Critical Thinking handles stereotypes and biases. Can media offer positive representations while still promoting stereotypical characterizations?
What does Critical Thinking teach viewers about student engagement and the importance of teaching things in a fun way?
What role does teamwork play in Critical Thinking? Why is it an important character strength?
- In theaters: September 4, 2020
- On DVD or streaming: September 4, 2020
- Cast: John Leguizamo, Rachel Bay Jones, Michael Kenneth Williams
- Director: John Leguizamo
- Inclusion Information: Latinx directors, Latinx actors
- Studio: Vertical Entertainment
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: High School
- Character Strengths: Teamwork
- Run time: 117 minutes
- MPAA rating: NR
- Last updated: February 19, 2023
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