Film Review: Life of a King

Appealing performances stand out in this expressive urban drama.

Cynics may sniff at Life of a King’s rather middlebrow aspirations, but Jake Goldberger’s feel-good feature is very much the type of inspirational filmmaking that average moviegoers often critique the industry for not producing more frequently. Based on the true story of how ex-con Eugene Brown turned his prison experience studying chess into an informal head-start program for inner-city youth, the charismatic film could see a niche theatrical release targeting core audiences help build avid word of mouth for VOD or cable.

After 18 years in prison for armed robbery, Brown (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) becomes a free man, returning to the Washington, D.C.-area neighborhood where he came up as a gang member. Determined to avoid the long reach of his former protégé Perry (Richard T. Jones), now a gangland boss, Brown steers clear of the streets and gets a job as a janitor at a local high school, where his can-do demeanor convinces the principal (Lisa Gay Hamilton) to assign him as a detention monitor for a class of rowdy troublemakers, unaware that her new hire has lied about his criminal conviction on his job application.

Drawing on one of the few viable skills he developed in the joint, Brown tries to convince the kids that playing chess will help keep them out of trouble and provide some useful life lessons as well. But most of them aren’t interested, particularly tough guy Clifton (Carlton Byrd), his sidekick Tahime (Malcolm Mays) and their childhood friend Peanut (Kevin Hendricks).

Standing up to the young thugs earns Brown some points and reluctant cooperation among the students, but almost as soon as he’s taught them the basics of chess and the game’s real-life analogies, his boss fires him for misrepresenting his prison record. Practically broke but undaunted, Brown gets help renting a rundown, foreclosed home, converting it into the “Big Chair Chess Club” and tempting back his former charges with the offer of respite from street hassles and the potential for a better future.

But poverty, crime and family conflicts create warring loyalties for the students. Potential chess prodigy Tahime can’t seem to break free from Clifton’s sketchy schemes and his drug-addicted mother’s constant harassment. If Brown is going to reach even one of these kids, he’s going to have to do it by convincing them that learning chess can help them deal with the entire convergence of issues holding them back—despite the fact that he’s a flawed role model himself.

Goldberger’s second feature adheres closely to biopic stylistic and narrative conventions, with co-writers Dan Wetzel and David Scott mining a rich vein of sentiment to counterbalance the unfortunate realities facing many of the fairly recognizable stock characters. As an adaptation of Brown’s life story, the film follows a predetermined arc, even if the filmmakers’ interpretation of events may render plot developments too frequently predictable. 

Gooding is in full-on drama mode for the role and although a few lighthearted moments would give the character more dimensionality, he easily projects the gravitas required by the part. The capable ensemble supporting cast, particularly the young actors playing his estranged son and daughter, as well as the high-school students, provides just enough conflict to make his small victories appear hard-won indeed.

While probably not a game-changer on an entertainment level, Life of a King effectively demonstrates that finding a path out of poverty may sometimes present unexpected choices well worth pursuing, often despite their unfamiliarity.

The Hollywood Reporter