Too good to be true.
That was Mary Mazzio’s first reaction.
A team of at-risk teens, some members of rival gangs and all raised on the crime-riddled streets of Chicago’s Westside, …
Too good to be true.
That was Mary Mazzio’s first reaction.
A team of at-risk teens, some members of rival gangs and all raised on the crime-riddled streets of Chicago’s Westside, come together to form the first all-Black high school rowing team in the history of the nation, overcoming adversity from within and without, breaking stereotypes, and finding themselves as they learn to pull together in more ways than one.
Call up Central Casting, right? Sounds like the greatest youth sports movie Disney never made.
Well, Mazzio decided not to wait around for the House of Mouse to wise up. She knew a thing or two about making movies, after all. And this story, she decided, just couldn’t wait to be told. She didn’t need a casting director to help choose the stars, either.
She vowed to keep things as real as possible.
Stranger (and better) than fiction
Based on the memoir “Suga Water” by Arshay Cooper, one of the original members of the team, “A Most Beautiful Thing” was called one of the best documentaries to unveil at South by Southwest by Brian Tallerico of RogerEbert.com, an “absolute must watch” by Deadspin, and “a movie we could really use right now” by the Hollywood Reporter.
It’s narrated by the Academy and Grammy award-winning artist Common, executive-produced by NBA Stars Grant Hill and Dwyane Wade, along with Grammy-winning producer 9th Wonder, directed by award-winning filmmaker and Olympic rower Mazzio — and will be streaming as part of this year’s Port Townsend Film Festival.
Everything about the story and the film’s growing success is summarized in the name of Mazzio’s production company: 50 Eggs. They all said it couldn’t be done, but fans of “Cool Hand Luke” know better. Likewise, Mazzio, who was originally set to call the company Medusa’s Revenge, doesn’t believe in giving up. “A Most Beautiful Thing” was racking up accolades going into South by Southwest and was set for hotly anticipated wider release. Then, COVID.
Next, widespread protesting in the wake of police killing several Black people.
It might have seemed Mazzio had lost her window. I mean, nobody can eat 50 eggs, right?
“I think honestly for us the film has become even more relevant,” the director said. “Because COVID exposed the profound health disparities that exist between the haves and the have-nots, and secondarily, Black Lives Matter spoke to everything that the young men in our film have been speaking to.”
Even being forced to go virtual-only hasn’t hampered the broadening buzz around the doc.
“I think we’re doing a number of virtual events around the film that are frankly almost more intimate in many ways than you would have had,” Mazzio said. “Certainly we are seeing some very, very exiting opportunities with the project, and the film, even in a COVID environment.”
From page to screen
Cooper’s autobiographical book received much praise, including from the likes of Ron Stallworth (author of “Black Klansman”) and Elizabeth Gilbert (author of “Eat, Pray, Love” and “Big Magic”), though it seemed more like a fable to Mazzio, herself an Olympic rower.
“I had heard about the book, couldn’t believe it,” she recalled. “I’m like, ‘Wait, I’m a rower. Since when has there been a team on the West Side of Chicago? Is this fake news?’ So I ordered Arshay’s book — and what a book it is — and read it in a nanosecond and that’s really how this all started.”
Rowing is, Mazzio said, “among the most privileged of sports,” and notoriously monocultural. All of which ultimately made it a wonderful means through which to explore the kinds of issues her films are known for tackling.
“To be able to explore the impediments that limit Americans just by virtue of the zip code they’re born in and the color of their skin, and being able to sort of explore that against this sport that we love — that Arshay loves, that I love, that the guys love — has really been an exceptional opportunity to not just look at access and opportunity but privilege,” she said. “And what are the obligations of privilege that are attendant to having that privilege?
“When I say privilege, I don’t mean money. But many of us in the world of privilege have been granted small kindnesses because of the color of our skin; kindnesses that simply would not have happened if we were not white.”
In the spotlight
Mazzio said the attention received by the book, and now the movie, has both surprised and thrilled the team, who recently got together on the water again to mark the 20th anniversary of the group’s formation.
“At the end of the day this is an articulation that their lives matter, that their stories matter,” she said.
“I think the film would have been important when it was received back in March, but people are starting to connect the dots now, especially those that live in the world of privilege. And all of the events that have played out over the past [months] are what these young men have experienced and speak to in a really profound way.”
The climax of the film sees the Chicago Police Department invited by the reunited members of the West Side team to put together a team of their own for a race.
It was not the ending the director had envisioned.
“My idea was, ‘OK, we get the guys on the water at the very end and maybe we get them rowing, sing Kumbaya, then fade to black, right?’” Mazzio laughed. “They’re all on the water, back where they were 20 years ago. Well, it turned out to be a very different exercise and a very different story.”
It’s a story that explores not only the safety those young men found on the water (where, as the captain reflected, “We were in a place where we could not hear the sound of sirens”), but the legacy of trauma, of violence and cyclical poverty in their hometown, examining how they were able to support each other in reimagining a different future for themselves and how rowing provided the backdrop for that opportunity.
Then, 20 years later, they did it again, but each for his own reason.
“Each one of them had a compelling reason for why they were getting back in the boat,” Mazzio said. “This was a very serious undertaking.”
They did it, she said, not only to mark the team’s founding, and not only engage Chicago police in a new and better way, but to celebrate the fact they are all still alive today.
Twenty years ago, that was far from certain.
About as likely as an all-Black high school rowing team in Chicago.