“Honestly, it’s not a rowing film,” explains director Mary Mazzio about her documentary “A Most Beautiful Thing,” which tells the story of the first African-American public high school rowing team in the US, formed in the late 1990s against all odds. “It’s masquerading as a sports film, but it’s a true investigation and really amplification of young men from the West Side of Chicago, their reality, and all of the systemic obstacles that these young people face at such an early age.” Mazzio joined us for our “Meet the Experts” documentary panel. Watch our interview with the filmmaker above.
Mazzio came to this film from a rowing background — she competed at the 1992 Olympics — and finding out about this groundbreaking rowing team was what first sparked her interest. She read the self-published memoir of one of those rowers, Arshay Cooper, and reached out to him. In filming him and the rest of his crew on the water, Mazzio wanted to convey “everything that Arshay Cooper was talking about: the peace, the serenity. Time was slowing down on the water, and that allowed him and the young people he was with to reimagine who and what they could become.”
But the film also articulates the pressures of poverty and violence that Cooper and his teammates face. “Talent is everywhere. Talent is equally distributed,” says Mazzio. “It’s access and opportunity that are not.” In particular, the “trauma that these young people … are experiencing on a daily basis, the profound lack of equality of safety that pervades these neighborhoods that’s frankly undemocratic,” those are the conditions that restrain people and their communities from developing those talents to their fullest potential.
But “A Most Beautiful Thing” is ultimately optimistic, in large part because of the persistence and resilience of its central subject: “The planet of Arshay Cooper is one where the most extraordinary things happen.”
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