Based on the true story of Eugene Brown, “Life of a King” is a tale focused on a father aiming for redemption after being locked up for 18 years. The sophomore feature of Jake Goldberger, he makes it a point to let the audience know that chess is the perfect metaphor for life. The story of Eugene Brown is a pretty remarkable one, but when seeing it on the screen it just feels too much like a story we’ve all seen before. That’s nothing against the story of Eugene Brown, it’s more the fault of Hollywood as an industry recycling ideas that we’ve seen before. Following in the footsteps of “Stand and Deliver,” “Life of a King” centers heavily on one man making a change in an inner city neighborhood that’s struggle. What makes Life of a King different is how the change happens — through the game of chess.
After serving 18 years in prison for armed robbery, Eugene (Gooding Jr.) goes back out into the world to start over and readjust to the life that he finally has back. He attempts to reconnect with his daughter Katrina (Rachae Thomas) and his son Marcus (Jordan Calloway), but both of them spurn his attempts. Katrina is busy with her pre-law studies while Marcus, now in juvie, wants nothing to do with the father who abandoned him. Through the help of a friend, Eugene is able to get a job as a janitor in a high school. Lying about his conviction on the job application, Principal King (Hamilton) hires him on the spot. One day after school while Eugene his working, Principal King asks Eugene to look after some unruly kids in detention as she tries to find a new detention monitor. Soon enough, this would be a regular gig for Eugene as his assertive voice is heard by these troublemakers.
Eugene decides to show these kids the game of chess, which he learned in prison and played for years with an inmate of his by the name of Searcy (Haysbert). Eugene wants to make sure these kids don’t follow the same path he fell down, so he hopes that by teaching them chess he’ll get through to them. And, shockingly, it seems to work. With the exception of one student, Clifton, who seems to be the main troublemaker/drug dealer, most of the students seem to follow in Eugene’s path. But what Eugene is unaware of is that with his chess, Clifton is unable to sell his drugs which causes friction between him and his supplier, Perry (Richard T. Jones). While Clifton is becoming more annoyed with Eugene, his friend Tahime (Mays) is a natural at the game and eventually starts to stay behind to play. Once Tahime starts getting into chess, “Life of a King” becomes a battle for the soul of Tahime as Eugene tries his hardest to keep the kid out of trouble.
While obviously a good-intentioned high school drama, “Life of a King” can get extremely heavy handed and melodramatic at times. That’s not always a bad thing as it allows for an emotional viewing, but at times it really brings out some of the weaknesses of both the script and an antagonist that, to me, just seemed weak. I get that the message with the antagonist was to show that not everyone will have your back, but it felt far too predictable and Perry just wasn’t a character I found myself interested in. That being said, the film lives off of the emotional, charismatic performance of Cuba Gooding Jr. and it’s a treat to watch him take on heavier roles again. Gooding Jr., when at his best, really could be considered as one of the most exciting actors to watch in Hollywood.
What “Life of a King” comes down to is this…the film can be melodramatic to a fault, it carries a good message that can at times be heavy handed, and it’s the type of movie that we have seen before. Yet while watching “Life of a King,” all I can think of was how authentic the movie actually felt. The young actors really felt like they were learning, while making this movie with Cuba Gooding Jr. leading the way. “Life of a King” is an imperfect film and that’s okay as these are imperfect characters who have realistic flaws. It may have been a bit too feel good at the end, but you can’t help but smile. “Life of a King” has the potential to be one of the indie surprises of the year and it should be seen by audiences everywhere.