“Rowing is as old as time itself. And for so long the terrain of favorite sons of famous families in places far, far away from the West Side; light years away.” Mary Mazzio’s new documentary A Most Beautiful Thing is about the first African American high school rowing team in the US. At least that’s what you would think at first glance. As the film slowly unfolds it becomes very clear that what this film is up to runs much, much deeper.
What Mary and her crew are really up to here is a look at many different things that our country just can’t ever seem to get over the mountain on. That a film about a high school rowing team can simultaneously make you take a deep look at racism, policing, income and safety inequality and severe childhood trauma certainly makes you appreciate how many plates Mazzio is spinning here.
But the real trick of the film isn’t that these issues are brilliantly raised. It’s that while simultaneously shining lights on these problems the film and it’s protagonists continually somehow lift you up to a better place while watching. It is a strange juxtaposition to be sure. Watching teammates Arshay Cooper, Alvin Ross, Malcolm Hawkins, Preston Grandberry and Ray Hawkins Jr recount the tales of their childhoods on the notorious West Side of Chicago you would think the heaviness is going to overtake you. They tell of the gangs that overran every block of their neighborhood. Their family’s struggles with addictions of all kinds and, in one particularly heartbreaking sequence, recount the age at which they first saw somebody die (most were 10 or 11). As Arshay himself told me in an interview for this film, “we had seen what most soldiers see when we were children”.
But cutting through all of this traumatic action was the simple act of rowing a boat. Crew is a sport that is most often associated with rich private schools or Ivy League universities. Definitely not something you would expect to see at Chicago’s Manley High School. The fact that these kids came together to make this team happen is a testament not only to their coaches Ken Alpart & Michael O’Gorman, but to the pure magic that simple actions can have to calm the soul. The film recounts the team talking about their first time on the water and how peaceful it made them feel despite the veritable war zone raging around them.
Now, in a Hollywood version of a sports movie, you sometimes skip the hardships of training in a sports you’ve never played. The crew recounts comically about their first time in a race and how they crashed straight into the wall. It’d be easy to give up in this moment. But team captain Arshay Cooper recalled a Park District employee who advised him while in the locker room, “Who said it was going to be easy”. It was this attitude that continued to drive the team to keep competing in the midst of family addictions, gang pressures and even family deaths. No matter what, they could always come back to the water. And even though they never won a race in their lone season, the inspiration they inspired truly meant the world.
If the movie stopped there it truly would be enough but we flash forward 20 years to a reunion of the team at a funeral and the desire and drive to get back out on the water and prove that they can still go. It is here that the documentary truly takes on an almost therapeutic nature, especially in a year as racked with tragedy and uncertainty as 2020. What starts as a simple get back in shape to race narrative quickly becomes so much more prescient when Arshay invites the Chicago police department to join them in the Chicago Sprints race.
What follows is a level of understanding and connection that many of no longer feel in 2020. Between cops and the community, between those who might not think the exact same as you, and, yes, those of a different race. I asked Arshay why he did this in the course of this film and his response was simply beautiful: “I just couldn’t not do it”. That’s an astounding level of openness and generosity from a person who could have easily denied both growing up.
But then again that’s what this film does. Every time I thought it might get bogged down in the sheer overwhelming tragedy of it all, Mazzio brings us back into the lighter world of the training room and the water. Exactly like the team says at the beginning, this scenes give us peace and calm and remind us that anything, be it rowing or any other activity, can be that precious escape we need when the world around us gets a little too hard to carry.
This film has clearly captured the attention and imagination of many people. It boasts a producers list that feels more like an A-List Miami party including names like Common, Dwayne Wade, Grant Hill and the Winklevoss Twins. Upon finishing the viewing it’s easy to see why these people and so many others want to put their names with this story. It might start and seem like a story about rowing but it’s really about that thing we all require at one time or another: resilience. The resilience to go against peer pressure and jeering, to not be weighted down by unimaginable tragedies, to reach out to build bridges to a better tomorrow, and to never give up. Any film that can make you feel this deserves many viewings and Mary Mazzio’s A Most Beautiful Thing is the best example of one that I can remember in a very long time.