By Jaycee Chapman, Graduate Student, African Studies Program & Library Science
Eight young, mostly Black school children from Indianapolis were once so bad at chess, they called themselves ‘The Masters of Disaster’ in the 1980’s. While their game play improved, the name stuck.
Nearly forty years later, the producer of the film and a former-Masters of Disaster teammate reflects on their involvement in the 32-minute documentary that became a gem of Indianapolis history and went on to receive praise from international audiences and be nominated for an Academy Award in 1987.
The Masters of Disaster (1985) is a short documentary film produced by Sonya Friedman and Pat Wetmore Kellar and was part of the IU Audio-Visual Center’s (AVC) film distribution service. The AVC’s holdings came to IU Libraries in 2008 and made up the original core collection that became the Moving Image Archive in 2010. The Moving Image Archive received a National Film Preservation Foundation grant in 2013 to preserve the film by making new film prints of the documentary and provided a copy of the film to the Academy Film Archive, which did not previously have the Award-nominated documentary in its historical holdings. More recently in 2019, the Archive created a 4K scan of the film and digitally restored it, creating a DCP that has provided the newly restored print to international screening venues.
The film features the ‘Masters of Disaster’ and their rise to success in the elementary school chess scene. Elementary school teacher Bob Cotter, the chess coach at Indianapolis Public School 27, bands the kids together and teaches them how to play. By 1983, the team had played chess against the then-Indianapolis mayor William Herbert Hudnut III, met President Ronald Reagan at the White House, and competed in various chess tournaments nationally and abroad in Tokyo, Japan.
The Masters of Disaster at practice with Coach Bob Cotter.
The documentary opens after a successful national championship in which the Masters of Disaster placed second in the National Elementary School Chess Tournament of 1983. The team begins practicing for another shot at the national tournament in 1984, under a combination of pressure to succeed after rising to local fame and an overconfidence that inhibited the team’s discipline to practice.
The AVC produced hundreds of educational films during the twentieth century, including films produced from the 1950’s through the 1970’s about inner city life in Indianapolis that dramatized issues of poverty, racism, and ghettoization. Though The Masters of Disaster addresses the realities of attending an under-funded public school, Friedman and Wetmore Kellar share a different narrative in The Masters of Disaster. The producers allow the team to tell their own story and let their unique personalities shine through their love of chess, resulting in a pinnacle of sorts to the decades-long series of films produced by the AVC.
Friedman explained to me that the team had endured “several disheartening experiences” with film producers who lost interest in the team and dropped projects in the works whenever they lost a match.
“Win or lose, the film would be made, and finished,” Friedman said. She and Wetmore Keller both believed that the documentary would be of interest regardless of the team’s success because of the boys’ enthusiasm and charisma.
Bob Cotter’s role as a coach and motivator to the young chess players is also celebrated. He is portrayed first and foremost as a teacher who genuinely cares for his students and believes in their ability to succeed, as long as they put forth a genuine effort.
“One of the reasons I went to the Indianapolis public schools was to seek out these kinds of kids, and to try to do something constructive and meaningful in their lives – something that would have an impact on them forever,” he says in The Masters of Disaster.
Coach Cotter and the team.
It seems that Coach Cotter succeeded at his goal.
When Derrick Brownie, former-Masters of Disaster team member, picked up the phone, I was immediately greeted by his open and friendly demeanor. After filming the documentary, Brownie went on to graduate high school and join the military. Upon retiring from the military, he became an ROTC instructor and taught students how to play a game that he says made him who he is today: chess.
“I’ll never stop playing chess,” he explained to me. When looking back on his time as a local superstar and at the peak of the team’s success, he said: “We were like the Bad News Bears of the chess world – put all of our crazy personalities together, people couldn’t wait to be around us. We had fun together.”
Teammate Derrick Brownie in the final match featured in Masters of Disaster.
The team disbanded once the members entered high school, where many went to different schools and found new interests. Some managed to keep in touch and maintained close friendships. The team moved on to pursue differing paths but still heard from each other from time to time, Brownie said. He still occasionally hears from former teammates Steve Garrett, Anthony Allen, Dale Foster, and Curtis Carson. The team’s strongest player, Derek Thomas, known as Rabbit at the time for his quick chess moves, was recently released from prison. Thomas checkmated former Indianapolis mayor, William H. Hudnut III, in a match featured in the documentary. Teammate Corey Scruggs died of lifetime diabetes while Brownie was deployed in Germany. “Me and him were best friends,” he told me. “Beautiful, peaceful Thomas Petty,” Friedman remarked, was shot and murdered during the team’s high school years.
Derek (Rabbit) Thomas just before he checkmates Indianapolis mayor William H. Hudnut III.
Unfortunately, the opportunity never arose for me to speak directly with Anthony Allen, former-Masters of Disaster teammate and current close friend of Derrick Brownie, but Brownie called him on a separate line while I spoke with him.
“Hey, Crumb!” Brownie exclaims once Allen answers the phone. ‘Crumb’ was Allen’s nickname during the team’s prime “because he was always hungry”, Brownie explained. Brownie told Allen that I was also on the line and inquiring about The Masters of Disaster. “I was just telling this young lady what a bad friend you are for never checking up on me,” he joked, and Allen’s muffled retort was received on the other end. The two spoke for a few minutes and promised to make plans soon.
The Masters of Disaster concludes with Brownie losing the match that would place the team in the national tournament. Defeat is palpable in Brownie’s eyes as he realizes his defeat, and he is filmed walking out of the gymnasium the match was held in. He told me about his reaction to this devastating loss and its being featured in The Masters of Disaster:
“Mr. Cotter taught us how to be good sportsmen. Even in the face of defeat, I didn’t give up, didn’t resign… You shake her hand, say good game, and move on. If you go back and look at that same scene,” he says, referring to when the camera follows him after his defeat and he is approached by a white chess student just before the scene switches, “his name is Andy Silverman. I beat Andy Silverman the year prior and he started crying so bad… I came second in the nation individually that year. That goes to show the chess world, how small the world was. He came up and still showed me love.”
Brownie being approached by Coach Cotter and Andy Silverman (left), team accepting award for 2nd in national championship (right)
Nearly forty years after the film’s release, both Brownie and Friedman look back on the filming of the documentary as an especially exciting time in the team’s history and a wonderful experience together. The film’s executive producer, Pat Wetmore Kellar, has since passed away.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today without Pat,” Brownie told me.
Now retired and currently in the process of writing an autobiography about the impact chess has had on his life, Brownie divulged, “I’ve passed over from a ‘Master of Disaster’ to a ‘Beautiful Disaster.’”
The Masters of Disaster celebrates this unlikely Indianapolis team and documents their rise to relative fame as well as both the highs and lows they faced in its short 32 minutes. It won several awards in 1986, including a Blue Ribbon at the American Film & Video Festival, Best of Category in the Birmingham International Film Festival, and a CINE Golden Eagle. It was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1987. In 2018, the IU Libraries Moving Image Archive scanned the original negatives and A/B rolls of Masters of Disaster and digitally restored the film.
As Friedman reflected, “The documentary showed [The Masters of Disaster], truly, as great achievers and champions”.
–You can watch the restored version of Masters of Disaster through the IU Libraries streaming server HERE