A Most Beautiful Thing (2020) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Rowing for changes

Documentary film “A Most Beautiful Thing”, which was supposed to be shown at the SXSW Film Festival before it was unfortunately canceled due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, is about a group of African American guys who try to bring changes into their violent Chicago neighborhood in an unlikely way. While they had each own difficult time as coping with their harsh reality, they stick together again nonetheless as remembering that positive experience in their adolescent years, and it is really moving to see how they come to bring some positive influence to not only themselves but also many others around them.

With the narration by Common, who also served as one of the executive producers of the documentary, we are introduced to a bunch of male African Americans, who were all born and grew up in the African American neighborhood area on the west side of Chicago. As they and other interviewees in the documentary tell us, their neighborhood area has been one of the most dangerous areas in Chicago with numerous shooting incidents happening every year, and all of them have more than one shooting incident victim among their family members or friends.

These dudes all attended the same high school together, which happened to be surrounded by the blocks respectively dominated by several different gang groups. For surviving in such a hazardous environment everyday, many of adolescent African American boys in this neighborhood have been pushed to join any of those gang groups, and they are subsequently tumbled into the life of crime and incarceration in addition to contributing to another cycle of misery and violence.

In 1997, these dudes happened to apply for a rowing team which was recently established by a new teacher coming to their school. Although they did not know anything about how to row a boat at first, they eventually came to improve themselves considerably under that teacher and a good coach who helped them a lot despite being ‘borderline racist’, and they soon participated in a series of competitions. Although they were not good enough to beat other teams, they tried hard as much as they could while sticking together with discipline and integrity, and they found themselves relying on each other more than expected – even when they were not training. Even though they did not get much support from others including their families, they felt good about the result of their efforts, and many of them subsequently came to try to bring more changes into their life.

The documentary gradually come to focus more on some of them, each of whom has an interesting life story to tell. Arshay Cooper, who is the most prominent member in the group, tells us about how much he and his siblings were hurt by their mother’s addiction problem, and his mother, who has been sober for years after finally entering a rehabilitation facility, does not deny anything while frankly reminiscing about when she was in the bottom of addiction. Once she was on the road to her recovery, she came to make amends with her children, and it is touching to see her and her son standing together in front of the camera.

In case of Preston Grandberry, he was on the other end of drug problem along with his mother, and he honestly talks about how he assisted her small drug business and then became more active in that criminal business several years later. He eventually spent some time in prison, but he has stayed away from crime since that time, and we later see him having a meeting with Cooper and their old rowing team colleagues at a barbershop where he works.

Discerning that many kids in their neighborhood really need positive influence just like they once did, these guys decide to assemble a rowing team again, and the documentary accordingly shows a series of obligatory training scenes where they try to be as fit and healthy as possible for preparing for the upcoming competition. Although they are not that young anymore, Cooper and his other team members are determined to push themselves a lot, and we soon see them regaining their groove to some degree through many hours of exercise and training.

The most unexpected moment in the documentary comes from when they decide to train along with several folks from the Chicago Police Department. Although the first meeting between these two groups is a bit awkward at first, it does not take much time for these two groups to get to know each other more, and this eventually culminates to a powerful scene where they stick together as one team in the competition.

Although it feels a bit heavy-handed at times especially during what is supposed to be the climactic point of its narrative, the documentary does not lose its human quality at all as steadily rowing along with Cooper and several other key rowing team members including Malcolm Hawkins and Alvin Ross, both of whom experienced pretty harsh cases of parental abuse during their childhood years. When he talks about one of his most difficult moments in the past later in the documentary, Ross cannot help but overwhelmed by bursting emotions, and that is probably the most empathetic moment for us in the documentary.

On the whole, “A Most Beautiful Thing” is a terrific documentary shining with genuine feel-good moments, and what director/writer/producer Mary Mazzio earnestly achieves here in the documentary takes me back to Steve James’ “Hoop Dreams” (1994) and “The Interrupters” (2011). Like these two memorable documentaries, “A Most Beautiful Thing” presents its plain but undeniably memorable human figures with care, respect, and empathy, and it is surely one of better documentaries I saw this year.

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