In 1997, on the west side of Chicago, a group of Black boys from Manley High School made a decision that would forever shape their futures. Although they already risked their lives just walking to school, they took a different kind of risk as well: getting in a boat. The documentary A Most Beautiful Thing reunites the first all-Black high school rowing team in the nation, and the youth, now men pushing 40, who made history by being trailblazers and who now want another shot at competing. Narrated by Grammy- and Oscar-winning artist Common, and executive produced by NBA Hall of Famer Grant Hill, NBA All-Star Dwyane Wade, and Grammy-winning producer 9th Wonder, this inspirational story of achievement features a moving hip-hop score with original tracks by Femdot, Reuben Vincent, Ian Kelly, King Draft, and Swank, with beats by E. Jones, Khrysis, and Kash.
The film’s protagonist is charismatic Arshay Cooper, whose self-published memoir Suga Water (now republished by Flatiron as A Most Beautiful Thing) caught the attention of former Olympic rower and award-winning filmmaker Mary Mazzio, director of the documentary. The film recounts how each of the young men, many from rival gangs, decided to learn the sport and compete in a national rowing meet. “When we were on the water,” Arshay wrote, “we were in a place where we couldn’t hear the sound of the sirens or bullets, and that allowed us to shape a different vision for ourselves, of who and what we could become.”
The lifelong impact of this childhood experience is apparent in each of their stories. There is Arshay, whose mother dealt with addiction and whose family struggled with gangs and drugs, who found hope when she got sober and the family changed. There is Alvin, who, despite going to prison, credits Arshay for coming to his house every day, which he said kept him out of a gang. Preston also struggled with a mother on drugs, and they both spent time in prison. The most difficult thing he had to overcome, he says, was himself. Malcolm, on the other hand, says the most difficult thing he overcame was his abusive father.
Each of these intimate interviews turn a spotlight on the intergenerational trauma they all shared, their lethal relationships with police, and the violent neighborhoods they lived in. They point out that while income inequality is often spoken of, the safety inequality of living in Chicago’s west side is not. Rowing became a metaphor, showing them that they could not move forward alone, but together as one.
The inciting incident that brings everyone together is the death of one of their former coaches, Mike O’Gorman, who they all admit meant well but was “kind of racist.” At the wake, which they all attend, the former teammates decide to race again in the Chicago Sprints. Cue numerous training montages and the fantastic hip-hop soundtrack. Arshay raises the stakes by inviting some Chicago police officers to train and compete with them, sitting in every other seat.
While A Most Beautiful Thing starts as a typical “white savior” story—a couple of white guys bringing rowing to divested neighborhoods—it does flip that narrative. White savior narratives do not address the failures these young men faced, not winning, not going to college. Yet today they are all entrepreneurs, a true testament to their hard work. Arshay is clearly the impetus for this exciting reunion as well as their decision to compete again as adults and to bridge the gap with law enforcement. The teammates show great vulnerability, in one scene earnestly talking about how they make jokes to avoid the pain. However, the police serve mainly as props to their story. These brave men take on the responsibility to provide an opportunity to fix broken relationships with the officers and speak about how that experience changed them, yet the officers do not speak to how, or even if, they are changed.
The film begins with each of the men recounting how they were each about ten or 11 years old when they first saw someone killed in their neighborhood. This hardened them, left them growing up feeling almost nothing. Today each of these men credit their success, their ability to be more functional family members and friends, with their decision all those years ago to take a risk and to work as a team. This is a film that every child in the city of Chicago needs to watch because we are all in the same boat. v