A Brief Commentary & Review of
The Dark Horse
Written & directed by James Napier Robertson
By John Bennison, Mountain Shadow Director
[This film was Mountain Shadow's selection for August, 2016.]
The Dark Horse is a film written by James Napier Robertson, starring Cliff Curtis. Inspired by Jim Marbrook’s documentary “Dark Horse,” it tells the story of a brilliant but troubled New Zealand chess champion; who finds purpose by teaching underprivileged Maori children about the rules of chess and life. The Dark Horse won Best Film at the 2015 Seattle International Film Festival, as well as People’s Choice Audience Awards at the Rotterdam, Seattle and San Francisco Film Festivals.
So he never thinks straight, ‘bout the shape that he’s in
But it ain’t him to blame, He’s only a pawn in their game.
Singer / songwriter, Bob Dylan
To have even the most rudimentary understanding of the rules of the game, one has to know how chess pieces are allowed to move on the board. The rook can move in a straight line in any direction; as long as there’s nothing in the way, or it intends to capture another piece. The bishop moves on the diagonal in similar fashion. The queen is most powerful, with the capacity of both the rook and bishop. The pawns and king are weakest, moving only one square at a time. But the pawns are, well, only pawns. They’re most numerous, and consequently most readily sacrificed to protect the king.
For most, it’s a game of attrition; knocking off enough of the opponent’s pieces, in order to expose the vulnerability of the king and its capture. But for the skilled player, cornering the king with an inescapable checkmate can sometimes be accomplished when your opponent still has plenty of other powerful pieces left on the board. Even a few lowly pawns can potentially become the victors. And sometimes with the help of a knight on horseback.
It is the peculiar ability of the knight’s horse to leap over other pieces -- forwards or backwards, up two squares and over one, or vice versa -- that can sometimes be most effective. And therefore, sometimes it’s really just a matter of backing the right horse against all odds.
I don’t know whether or not that’s how New Zealand’s real chess genius, Genesis Potini, got his nickname, “Dark Horse.” But his story, as dramatized in the film by the same name, is a real life example of how the game can be likened to life itself,
In the beginning, Genesis (aptly named) is only a pawn in the game; rendered nearly powerless by his bi-polar disorder when he is released into the care of his older brother. Ariki is a prominent member of a dangerous street gang in the economically depressed and crime-ridden town of Gisborne. There Genesis meets his teenage nephew Mana, who soon learns about his uncle’s unique genius; just as he is about to be initiated into a life of crime.
The storyline quickly becomes a familiar one. An unlikely leader will find the passion and strength of will from within to rise up to battle his own demons and the forces of darkness; to form a family (the Maori word is whanau), out of a group of young disadvantaged misfits and lead them to victory.
But mere predictability in the plot line can only be considered a weakness in the film if you forget it’s a true story that does not simply end with a tournament trophy. The acting alone might be fine enough to carry the day. Or, the same story you’ve heard and seen before in other times, places and cultures can certainly convey – with some deep appreciation -- the universality of this common tale. But it doesn’t end there.
Almost like a postlude that brings the story full circle, Genesis’ own childhood memories remain troubling enough that he will risk life and limb, in order not to forsake one last, lost pawn, his nephew Mana. As he puts it earlier in the film, in what seems to be a partial mental breakdown to those around him,
“Let’s play. Everybody can play. Everybody’s welcome here. It doesn’t matter if you’re a pawn or a king, or a queen or a knight. Come on, I can teach you a thing or two. Don’t be afraid of me. It’s a beautiful day. Every day is a living day. It doesn’t matter who you are. … Just remember that deep down, we’re all the same.”