THIS WEEKEND YOU MUST WATCH one of the most inspiring films I’ve ever seen, and one that speaks directly to this moment: A MOST BEAUTIFUL THING.
This profoundly uplifting documentary by award-winning director and Olympic rower Mary Mazzio, absolutely lives up to its title. The film tells the true story of a group of high school boys in 1998 growing up on Chicago’s tough west side who became the first African American HS rowing team in the U.S. The self-described sons of prostitutes and addicts, from rival gangs and neighborhoods had to learn to row together as one team when they took up the sport at an experimental program that presented itself at Manley High School. Oscar and Grammy Award-winning performer and Chicago native Common–who also co-executive produced- narrates this unlikely story and director Mazzio catches up with these men who reunite 20 years later to recapture the race and the experience which altered their inner lives and outer destinies.
The ripple effect of the film’s narrative is powerful. It starts with the subjects themselves: team captain Arshay Cooper whose memoir inspired the film, Malcolm Hawkins, Preston Grandberry, and Alvin Ross. These men are remarkably open and expressive about the profound psychological and emotional effect of rowing together and how that transformed the way they saw themselves and each other. It becomes clear that rowing for each of these individuals created a channel for empathy.
The strength of the film is the intimacy of these interviews and its attention to the individual lives of each man in the boat, who they were before and who they became after their experiences as rowers. We understand them as very different kids, with different personalities, physical statures, different families and circumstances, each of them experiencing the damage of violence on their brains and self esteem. Each of them talks about that brutal legacy, growing up amid gunshots on their neighborhood streets, as well as the violence in their own families, and their relationships with fathers and mothers who themselves inherited violent legacies. There are heartbreaking old photos of them as children, and then their escape from that cycle through the expansiveness and peace they found being on the water, in a setting they never imagined and thought was closed to them.
Understandably, there is little video of the young men rowing in HS 1998, but the filmmaker captures that transformative experience and the elation they describe by supporting these interviews with sweeping overhead and tracking shots of them reunited and moving through the water. They also talked about their feelings of personal accomplishment; they had only themselves and each other to rely on and had little or no support from peers and families at the time who just didn’t understand what they were going through, but who eventually came to see these men in a new light– successful, healthy, and powerful.
And just when I thought I had seen the extent of the positive impact of rowing on their lives, the narrative takes a leap and unfolds in an unexpected way that just about took the top of my head off. I suddenly saw the much wider and perhaps limitless implications of such a program to break down class, racial, cultural, ethnic, and physical barriers, to bring the most unlikely folks together in order to float that boat over the finish line. By the end of the film, it’s impossible not to see rowing as a potent metaphor for how to move forward– in a boat, in a country, in a society that artificially segregates people. What Mazzio– who was on the Olympic rowing team in 1992– creates is a film that captures the effects of that transcendent change. I found myself tearing up, cheering them on, and wishing with my whole heart and soul that everyone could see and feel this film.
As the mother of a HS rower, I came to appreciate the unique qualities required by the sport, a combination of singularity and symbiosis whereby each individual rower must synch up with their teammates, as one organism, in order to move that boat through the water. As one of these rowers says near the end of the film, “To go anywhere in a boat you have to be moving together.” If those words don’t float our boat–we’re sunk.