John Leguizamo makes directorial debut with 'Critical Thinking'

NEW YORK (WABC) -- We're celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month with a look at a group of students from one of the poorest communities in Miami who beat the best high school chess players in the nation.

This true story has inspired a new movie, "Critical Thinking," starring John Leguizamo -- who also directed the film.

I have to admit that was less than excited about watching a movie about chess -- a game I've never been able to play -- but I've almost always enjoyed anything with Leguizamo does. So I took the plunge, and now I think this movie will be on my 10 Best List for 2020.

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Leguizamo's love for chess lies at the heart of his passion project, which is perhaps why his "Critical Thinking" is so interesting and engaging.

In 1998, a teacher named Mario Martinez, played by the star, tells his students, "It doesn't matter how rich or poor you are, what Ivy League school you may or may not go to, because chess is the great equalizer."

The movie is based on real events, as Leguizamo explained recently on "Live with Kelly and Ryan."

"It's a true story of five Latin and Black kids from the ghetto-ist ghetto in Miami, Overtown, who in 1998 became the United States National Chess Champions," he said.

It wasn't supposed to work this way, given the challenges each of the players faced in their community.

Martinez sarcastically urges his principal to, "Give up on them, let their parents give up on them. Let the whole system give up on them, and you know what? I ain't, OK?"

The young actors playing the student champions are totally believable. Before starting to shoot, Leguizamo held what he called a "chess boot camp."

"They learned the exact moves that were played by the champions," he said.

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This marks Leguizamo's first film as a director.

"I've been in 100 films, not all of them good," he said. "But I learned from the best: Baz Luhrmann, Spike Lee, Ava DuVernay, Brian De Palma. And when I got on the set, I realized I got a catalog of information on how to shoot a movie, and it started all kicking in."

Leguizamo has pulled off an almost impossible feat by making an exciting movie about chess and making sure you don't need to know anything about the game to get why "Critical Thinking" is so important.

It's available to stream, and Hispanic Heritage Month is the perfect time to enjoy it.

To hear more amazing stories of community leaders and heroes in our area, join ABC7 in celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month.

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