There’s a scene in “A Most Beautiful Thing” when four Black men from the westside of Chicago get out onto the lake, a massive body water that is both tranquil and terrifying.
These men have seen hardship, the effects of drug addiction and the sound of gunfire. But out on the water, one thing is immediately clear. There is an absence of sound, an absence of the unrelenting pace of city life, a silence that is deafening.
There’s an adage in sports, teams need to move in unison, embrace camaraderie to effect momentum. In rowing, that sentiment isn’t just a nice thought. It’s crucial to success.
“A Most Beautiful Thing” premieres on Friday, July 31 on Xfinity for Comcast customers. It will then premiere on Sept. 1 on the newly launched Peacock streaming service before it hits Amazon Prime in October.
The film, narrated by Grammy, Oscar, and Emmy-winner Common and executive produced by Dwyane Wade and Grant Hill, is based on Arshay Cooper’s memoir of the same name. It follows Cooper along with lifelong friends who for some reason go along with the crazy notion of taking up rowing as high school kids.
It’s a story about joy and trauma, success and hardship. It’s a movie about Arshay Cooper and his uncanny ability to get strangers to row in the same direction.
Seeing a boat inside the lunchroom was a chance encounter with a momentary novelty for so many kids who attended Manley High School.
Four kids had their interest piqued just enough to entertain the possibility of trying out this sport they knew nothing about.
Against the backdrop of a neighborhood where students had to make their way to school with a clear understanding of which gangs dominated which block, these friends created the first African-American high school rowing team in the nation.
For Cooper, rowing initially provided him a fraternity of kids from the neighborhood that came together regardless of the block they represented.
“I grew up, I was a loner. I didn't hang out with my brothers. I had one friend through middle school. And that was Preston (Grandberry),” Cooper tells En Fuego on Sports Illustrated.
Cooper found more than a bunch of friends on the water, he discovered a lasting bond that took each young man through astounding personal strife.
Unlike at football and basketball games, rows of friendly faces cheering you on, the boys discovered on their intrepid journey into a new sport that they were all alone on that boat. The support system would have to come from one another.
“You want brotherhood. You want a bond,” Cooper said. “And sometimes you don't get that at home. But there's the neighborhood. There's the boys. You hang out with them, laugh together. And so, brotherhood and friendship is so important, no matter who you are, where you from, especially on the west side of Chicago.”
The film is about a great many things, but at the heart of it all, it’s a story of friendship and how that undeniable bond can help us all get through truly soul-crushing experiences.
But there’s a levity to “A Most Beautiful Thing.” It would be so easy to rely solely on a catharsis of emotions other than laughter but there is a real sense of positivity about a film that’s as refreshing as it is inspiring.
Award-winning filmmaker and Olympic Rower Mary Mazzio directs the film after such works as 2017’s “I am Jane Doe” and 2014’s “Underwater Dreams.”
“I think there is a joy and a hope and a humor that all of these young people had that was important to capture,” Mazzio said. “I think it showcases the fundamental point that talent and excellence is everywhere, and it's equally distributed. It's access and opportunity that isn't.”
Know Our Names
There was no way filmmakers would know that the film’s release would coincide with an ongoing global pandemic. There was no predicting that.
The themes presented over 90 minutes echo the current state of unrest the country is facing. And it’s not because producers planned for it. It’s because the distrust inner-city communities have had for police has been around long before George Floyd tragically lost his life. The trauma it endures is generational.
There’s a part in this movie when two worlds come together thanks to Cooper and his courage to teach with an outstretched hand.
“Arshay called me and said, ‘You know, I've been thinking about the toxicity with law enforcement and I have an idea.’ And this is true to Arshay's nature,” Mazzio recalled.
She explains that years ago Cooper had been stopped by a police officer and taken into custody, later seeing the officer at a Starbucks he felt it important, necessary even, to approach him and tell him he’s a really good kid.
“Fast forward 20 years and that officer is in Arshay's wedding,” Mazzio said. “This is Arshay Cooper. This is Planet Arshay.”
And the two carve out a way to incorporate local police officers in the documentary. It’s a moving moment in the film that is particularly apropos considering the state of the nation.
“We show up for the first encounter, which was, by the way, hashtag very awkward,” Mazzio said with a smile.
But it’s the kind of encounter you come to expect from someone who Mazzio explains has this, “remarkable ability to cross boundaries, to transcend differences, to begin a dialog.”
Cooper isn’t being polite for the sake of congeniality. He is easy going, warm and receptive but also perceptive.
“They need to know our names to work there,” Cooper said about the impetus behind his outreach to police officials. “Fifteen years. Eight hours a day, and you have no relationship with anyone in the community. We're staring each other down.”
There’s another way; a path through familiarity. And when you make that decision to reach out and engage, the relationship transforms.
“You learn to follow each other,” Cooper said of the officers featured in the film. “You learn to listen. We were the teachers.” And as anyone knows, regardless of childhood neighborhood, “You never forget a teacher.”
Change doesn’t happen instantly. Cooper is well aware of that fact. It’s a slow, glacial process. It transpires one conversation at a time, moving with the speed of a changing neighborhood.
But you can measure impact anecdotally, in a digital missive between new friends.
“When George Floyd died, I had a text conversation with three out of four of the cops (in the movie),” Cooper said. “And they were sad about it. And it showed me that they see our face when they see George Floyd’s face.”
Power of Rowing
The joy of a documentary like this is that you get to witness another’s life. You might not get to experience the cold of the water or the sting of the sweat, but you see the triumph and realize the hardships.
While this story is remarkably salient for today’s issues, the sport of rowing is especially relevant to those who are without a support system of their own.
“This is the ultimate team sport where you are only as strong as the weakest link,” Mazzio said. “And the ability to deal with conflict by coming together, both physically and then metaphorically, because you cannot move together unless your oars are in at the same time unless you're moving in the same direction.”
One of the many things you take from the film is that success isn’t measured immediately, it takes years to carve out opportunities and positive change.
It would be nice to fix things quickly. That’s not how this works. There’s no vaccine for racial injustice that continues to affect so many communities across this country, trauma now embedded into the very fabric of these neighborhoods.
But listening, supporting and leaning on sport offer an avenue for change. A ray of light amid dark times, a moment of respite from the cacophony of noise.
Arshay Cooper has this undeniable passion to highlight the good that is in people, to teach and welcome a community into the water.
“My movement is through sports,” he said. “I'm going to change my village. My village is rowing. And I hope through that that there will be 20 years later, not just four guys, but there'll be 4,000 young Arshays and hopefully a little bit more than four cops. And that's the start for me. And I'm still figuring it out. But I'm working hard every day to give more access to people like me and more opportunities to learn from great mentors.”