‘A Most Beautiful Thing’ documentary honors the Chicago story of the First US African American High School Rowing Team, Premieres on Xfinity July 31st
The much anticipated documentary feature A Most Beautiful Thing, chronicles the life of five courageous teenagers who grew up on the West Side of Chicago and earned a place in sports history. The film details the story of Arshay Cooper, Ray (Pookie) Hawkins, Preston Grandberry, Malcolm Hawkins and Alvin Ross from their teenage years at Manley High School, as they persevered through adversity and gang violence in one of Chicago’s underserved communities.
In 1996, these young men bonded a friendship after a chance meeting at Manley High School to participate in a rowing program that was the first of its kind at the school. Their dedication and achievement in a water racing sport not often exposed to the African American culture, helped them excel to become the nations first African American High School rowing team.
“When we were on the water, we were in a place where we couldn’t hear the sound of sirens or bullets, and that allowed us to shape a different vision for ourselves, of who and what we could become,” describes Arshay, the captain of the rowing team. “And that was a beautiful thing.”
Living in a poverty stricken neighborhood and some being in rival street gangs, what brought Arshay and his teammates together was their interest in a rowing boat, staged in the middle of the school’s lunch hall, that led them to register for Manley’s first after-school rowing program. “As the first Black high school rowing team, we thought we were going to change the sport, just like Jackie Robinson changed baseball, but instead, the sport changed us,” explains Arshay. “Rowing gave us a purpose and gave us each other. It saved my life.”
Now in his mid 30’s, Arshay is the author of his award winning self published memoir A Most Beautiful Thing, of which inspired one of the most important documentary films of this decade. Directed by award winning filmmaker Mary Mazzio, an Olympic rower herself, Mary took notice when Arshay reached out to her through Twitter to introduce his new book. “I am, like most rowers, passionate about the sport, and immediately ordered it,” says Mary. “I was excited about a story I had never heard of, and a team I could not believe existed. Rowers, on the West Side of Chicago? How did I not know this?
Mary explains that as a community “we rowers are all grit, all guts, all grind. No glory. No one in a boat is the star because you are only as fast as the weakest link.” When Arshay’s book arrived, Mary says it was mesmerizing. “His story was inspiring, devastating, funny, sad and hopeful, all in a single read.”
Mary thought it was extraordinary that Arshay as a teenager, whose mother was struggling with generational trauma and addiction, and the brother of gang members, found something special about the sport of rowing that changed his life. She says “the racing distance is 2000 meters, somewhere between 5-7 minutes, and the amount of training to prepare for a race, that starts with a sprint, settles to a near sprint, and ends with a final sprint, is grueling.”
A Most Beautiful Thing examines the lives of Arshay, Pookie, Preston, Malcolm and Alvin on how they protected themselves from a life of crime during their high school years. From growing up as teens to becoming fathers, family men and entrepreneurs, the film depicts many victorious moments.
After 20 years away from rowing, they all decided to race once again, this time for their sons and community, and to pay homage to one of their first rowing coaches. NBA Hall of Famer Grant Hill, one of the executive producers of the film, says that was the moment that touched his heart. “With the recent events that have transpired, it is even more meaningful to be part of a project which shows young Black men, in a positive, human, and hopeful way,” says Hill. “The protagonist of the film, Arshay Cooper, is a leader of his generation and his name will be one that soon everyone will know.”
A Most Beautiful Thing documentary feature is based on Arshay Cooper’s award winning self published memoir A Most Beautiful Thing and directed by award-winning filmmaker and Olympic rower, Mary Mazzio. The film is narrated by Grammy and Oscar-winning artist Common, executive produced by NBA Hall of Famer Grant Hill, NBA All-Star Dwyane Wade, and Grammy-winning producer 9th Wonder, and features original music by femdot., Reuben Vincent, King Draft and Swank; Ian Kelly, GQ, and other hip-hop artists, with beats by Khrysis, E.Jones, Kash, and the The Soul Council.
A Most Beautiful Thing premieres on Xfinity on Demand starting July 31st and on Peacock, NBC’s new steaming platform, starting September 1st. Arshay Cooper’s memoir, A Most Beautiful Thing is published by Flatiron Books. For updates visit www.AMostBeautifulThing.com.
About the Author: Don Howze is an Emmy Award Winning Film/Tape Editor and Associate Professor of Journalism and Television Production. Don is the producer and director of the upcoming film documentary The Production Crew, funded in part by The Field Foundation of Illinois. imdb.me/dondvideo. Contributing writer, Daina Howze.