The Dark Horse: Film Review

By Justin Eagle Gauthier

dark horse videoThe life story of a Maori speed-chess champion may sound like a boring premise for a feature-length film but, “The Dark Horse,” manages to deliver a unique, riveting cinematic experience worth seeking out.

After viewing Jim Marbrook’s 2003 documentary, “Dark Horse” (no “the” in the title of this one), about the life and struggles of bi-polar chess champion Genesis “Gen” Potini, filmmaker James Napier Robertson sought out Gen and pitched the idea of adapting his life story into a movie. Throughout the process of writing the screenplay, Robertson formed a fast friendship with Gen. Robertson, the director, has said in interviews that Gen’s support was integral in realizing the film. Unfortunately, Gen passed away in August 2011. “The Dark Horse,” was released in New Zealand on July 17, 2014, and opened to both critics and audience acclaim. The RNZ National Review lauded the film as, “one of the greatest New Zealand films ever made”.

When most Americans think of New Zealand cinema, the most prominent cultural reference is Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings and Hobbit,” series. For those who follow world-cinema however, New Zealand, especially within the last five years, has become a hotbed of inventive filmmaking. Whether talking about Maori filmmaker Taika Waititi’s award-winning comedic mockumentary, “What We Do in the Shadows,” or his box office smash Boy, the influence of Kiwi cinema on the world stage is burgeoning. The Maori action film, “The Dead Lands,” is another example of a big budget, mainstream property from New Zealand that represents a paradigm shift in worldwide cinema toward indigenous stories.

Beginning with 1994’s acclaimed film, “Once Were Warriors,” parallels between indigenous cultures across the globe became more apparent. Since then, there have been several films from New Zealand that have hinted at a Maori cinematic renaissance. “The Dark Horse,” is the latest and greatest of these films. Anchored by the dynamic performance of Cliff Curtis of, “Fear the Walking Dead,” fame as lead character Genesis Potini, the film is an infusion of multiple genres. Robertson has created a well-balanced mix of drama, light comedy, and biopic.

The supporting cast does a more than serviceable job of providing weight and texture to the world the crew convincingly created. Cliff Curtis inhabits the role of Genesis with a masterful turn. His nuanced performance provides the viewer many moments and opportunities to form a relationship with the complex character he so convincingly portrays. Genesis Potini co-founded a youth chess club, dealt with bi-polar disorder and complicated family relationships all while dealing with homelessness and an atmosphere of violence completely out of his control. All of these challenges play in the background of his role as mentor/coach of the Eastern Knights youth chess club.

The Dark Horse proves to be one of the most affecting and memorable dramas of the last few years. Curtis deserves accolades and awards for his performance. His portrayal is riveting, harrowing, and completely mesmerizing. Much like, “Once Were Warriors” in 1994, this film is a touchstone for a whole new generation of indigenous filmgoers.

Justin Eagle Gauthier, a Menominee tribal member, writes for several literary journals. He is currently enrolled in the “LoRez MFA,” program at the Institute of American Indian Arts.