WATCH: Five Black History-Making Rowers Pull Together in ‘A Most Beautiful Thing’

By N. Jamiyla Chisholm Mar 30, 2020

In 1998, when many Black boys were playing basketball or football, five Chicago students from Manley High School—Arshay Cooper, Malcolm Hawkins, Ray Hawkins Jr., Preston Grandberry and Alvin Ross—got a boat from the Lincoln Park lagoon to form a rowing team instead, making them the “first African American high school rowing team in this country,” according to a press release for the new documentary, “A Most Beautiful Thing.” 

“I grew up being chased. I’ve seen bullets fly past my home. I’ve skipped over pools of blood. I’ve seen people dead on the street corner, and it caused a lot of trauma,” Cooper, the team’s captain, told the Chicago Sun-Times in an article published on March 28. “I tried out for the football team, and it triggered a lot of that trauma. I tried out for the basketball team, and it was a lot of conflict and arguing. Rowing was the only sport that didn’t trigger the trauma.”

“A Most Beautiful Thing” is executive produced by Academy Award-winning artist Common, who also narrates; National Basketball Association (NBA) stars Grant Hill and Dwyane Wade and Grammy-winning producer 9th Wonder. Directed by Olympic athlete and award-winning filmmaker Mary Mazzio, the documentary tells how the Chicago boys, who started out as strangers, used the water to keep calm in the midst of neighborhood violence. Twenty years later, following the death of a coach, the four former rowers and coxswain reunited last summer in the boat to race once again. Arshay Cooper will publish his memoir, with the same title as the film, on June 30.

"These young men invited me into their world, into their realities, reminding me of our collective responsibility for the conditions we (the greater ‘we’) created and the long shadow of the trauma our ancestors inflicted upon a generation of African-Americans (some call it slavery) but the violence endemic in the slave trade makes the term ‘slavery’ almost quaint,” said Mazzio in a statement.

She continued: “This starting line of trauma was passed to future generations, reinforced in ways both large and small through redlining, racist policies of exclusion, police mistreatment and brutality, and the excruciating lack of investment for remediating those conditions the greater “we” are responsible for creating. That children suffer the sins of our forebears, living in third-world conditions, in a first-world nation, is inexcusable and people like Arshay are beacons of light, calling out truth to power, but also doing something about it.”

The doc debuted at a special screening for members of Congress, in Washington, D.C., in February. Due to postponements as a result of COVID-19, the film is now scheduled to debut to the public on June 12, 2020. 

 In the meantime, view the trailer above, courtesy of 50 Eggs Films.