A boat bonds West Side teens in an up­lift­ing doc­u­men­tary

Film fol­lows pi­o­neer­ing Man­ley High crew team as they re­unite — and row again

Chicago Sun-Times - - ENTERTAINM­ENT - BY RICHARD ROEPER, MOVIE COLUM­NIST rroeper@sun­times.com | @RichardERo­eper

The an­swer is 10. Ten years old, or maybe 11.

The ques­tion is, When was the first time you saw some­body die? And for the mem­bers of the 1990s Man­ley High School row­ing team (that’s right), the an­swer is: 10. Ten years old, or maybe 11.

Not all Amer­i­can child­hoods are the same. We know that. We see ev­i­dence of that ev­ery day, per­haps now more than ever. But as we learn in Mary Mazzio’s up­lift­ing and in­spi­ra­tional and just plain cool doc­u­men­tary “A Most Beau­ti­ful Thing,” not all Amer­i­can row­ing teams are born in prep schools on the East Coast, and not all row­ers look like the Win­klevoss twins (who are among the fa­mous ex­ec­u­tive pro­duc­ers of this film, along with Dwyane Wade, Grant Hill and Chaz Ebert).

Nar­rated by Chicago’s (and the world’s) Com­mon, “A Most Beau­ti­ful Thing” tells the sto­ries of Ar­shay Cooper, Alvin Ross, Mal­colm Hawkins, Pre­ston Grand­berry and Ray Hawkins Jr., who all grew up on the West Side of Chicago in the 1980s and 1990s and at­tended Man­ley Ca­reer Acad­emy High School in the East Garfield Park neigh­bor­hood. (Di­rec­tor Mazzio, a for­mer Olympic rower, based the film on Cooper’s me­moir.) Ar­riv­ing at school one day, they were sur­prised to see a beau­ti­ful and quite in­con­gru­ous boat — along with an in­vi­ta­tion to get some free pizza and learn about the sport of row­ing.

Form­ing a crew team was the brain­child of Ken Al­part, a for­mer rower for Penn and a Chicago trad­ing exec, and de­spite ini­tial skep­ti­cism from Cooper et al., they formed the coun­try’s first African Amer­i­can high school row­ing team. Spoiler alert: As the men re­count in funny, frank and self-dep­re­cat­ing in­ter­views, they didn’t win any cham­pi­onships, but they forged a life­long bond as team­mates — and 20 years later, at a funeral ser­vice for one of their coaches from back in the day, they de­cide to get the band back to­gether and com­pete in the Chicago Sprints in the Lin­coln Park La­goon.

The men are older and heav­ier. (Who isn’t?) There are suc­cess sto­ries — one started a mov­ing busi­ness, an­other be­came a li­censed bar­ber — but the film doesn’t sug­ar­coat the fact that two of them have been in­car­cer­ated. The train­ing se­quences (and for that mat­ter, most of the film it­self) are like some­thing straight out of a Dis­ney sports movie, and the story be­comes even more amaz­ing and in­cred­i­ble when Cooper sug­gests they in­vite mem­bers of the Chicago Po­lice Depart­ment, nearly all of them white, to row with them.

Given what’s hap­pen­ing in the city and in the coun­try these days, the scenes of the cops and the orig­i­nal Man­ley row­ing crew work­ing to­gether, shar­ing laughs, bond­ing and root­ing for one an­other are par­tic­u­larly poignant. We can feel our hearts hurt­ing and soar­ing at the same time.

The men of the Man­ley High School row­ing team re­unite in Oak­land, 20 years af­ter their in­tro­duc­tion to the sport.

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