Is it possible the movie everyone needs to watch to get through 2020 is actually about a rowing race that was held in Chicago in 2019?
After recently watching "A Most Beautiful Thing," I can say that the answer is an unqualified yes.
Although to describe the film as just about "a rowing race" would be like describing "Brian's Song" as a movie about NFL training camp.
"A Most Beautiful Thing" centers around a reunion of men who attended Manley High School on Chicago's West Side in the late '90s and formed the country's first all-Black high school rowing team. Now in their late '30s and at different points in their lives, they get back into the boat for one last race and the chance to recapture the experience that changed their lives as inner-city teenagers.
Originally set to be released in AMC theaters last spring, the delayed movie narrated by Common and produced by Dwyane Wade and Grant Hill can now be viewed on Xfinity OnDemand. It'll also be available on NBC's new Peacock streaming service on September 4 and Amazon Prime in October.
I recommend that you track it down. Not only is it a good movie about Chicago and a good movie about sports, it seems uniquely tailored for this moment on a number of levels including race, opportunity, perseverance and teamwork.
"I can tell you that I was torn apart when it didn't come out in March because of COVID," said Arshay Cooper, one of the team's rowers. "But it's crazy. I look at it now and I say, 'This film couldn't come out in March, it couldn't come out next year. It couldn't come out in 2019.' It is perfect that it's out now.'"
The film is based on Cooper's 2015 memoir "Suga Water," which has put him at the forefront of doing a lot of publicity for the film. Cooper told me that it was a struggle to get anyone's attention back in the spring when it was scheduled for the theater release.
But George Floyd's murder in late May coupled with America's ensuing awakening toward systemic racism has brought more eyes to the film. Cooper, who works to increase diversity within the sport of rowing, has been a popular podcast guest and interview subject for publications across the country.
"A Most Beautiful Thing" opens up with us getting to know the teens who walked into the Manley cafeteria one day to find a crew boat and a man named Ken Alpart. A former Penn rower and successful Chicago trader, Alpart had the idea that opening a predominantly white sport to African-American teenagers could increase opportunities for them both on and off the water.
Cooper and the others who decide to go out for the team are skeptical at first, but soon find that getting out on the river is an escape from the realities of their lives.
The first section of the movie doesn't spare any detail, painfully painting a portrait of Chicago families struggling with drug addiction and gang membership as well as generational abuse and poverty.
Cooper's illustration on a map of just how far he had to go out of his way to avoid multiple gang territories on his way to school is particularly eye-opening.
So, too, is the opening discussion of when each team member saw their first murder on the streets.
Joining the Manley rowing team, however, gives the students a chance to get away from all the sirens and gunfire and work together instead of against each other.
"Rowing was the first sport I'd ever done where there was no conflict and it was not combative," Cooper said. "Once you got out on the water, it was just pure meditation."
While the Manley team doesn't enjoy a meteoric rise to success against more established and moneyed teams, we see how Alpart's idea translates into later achievements. The ever-optimistic Cooper overcomes a challenging childhood that would have felled most people and becomes an author and motivational speaker; another member becomes the owner of a moving company. Those with children are attentive and loving fathers when introducing their sons and daughters to rowing later in the movie.
I asked Cooper what he hoped the takeaways from "A Most Beautiful Thing" would be.
"Number one, i want the people who are growing up like we did to understand that there is hope, no matter how hard it is or how much you've been through," Cooper told me. "There is a road map and it's get involved in something. Your route may not be sports, but find a team in something. It will change your life."
"For everyone else, I want people to understand that there is talent everywhere, no matter who you are, or what color you are. But access and opportunity is not everywhere. If we can bring access and opportunity, imagine the great things that can come out of these communities. That's the message."
Throughout the course of the movie, Cooper's knack for tearing down walls and bringing people together becomes evident. He gets the idea to invite a group of Chicago police officers to start rowing in an eight-man boat together for the 2019 Chicago Sprints event at the end of the film.
A group of white police officers getting into a boat to row with a group of men from the West Side is an interesting image at any time, but particularly during a summer of racial strife when the two sides seem farther apart than ever.
Cooper, however, thinks it's important for both sides to keep meeting, learning and working on a personal level and brushes aside any criticism he hears from others.
"There have been people who don't live in Chicago, maybe it's an activist who sees it and says 'Well, I don't know about that," Cooper said. "But interestingly, those who grew up on the West Side and are from where I'm from are like "Yeah, something has to be done' ... I know from proof that being in a boat together can bring two guys from different gangs together. It can bring anyone together."
Cooper said his relationship with the police officers from the film has continued. After Floyd's murder, he received sympathetic text messages from three of them saying that they shared in Cooper's pain.
"It doesn't change the system, but it's a start," Cooper said. "There are so many different movements that we need. We need these protests to bring awareness, but I also think we need to have conversations and we need people to utilize their gifts to fix the things that are missing in our community. My gift is sports and building bridges and that's why I try to use."
Cooper's statement about it being a start rang true for me.
In a summer and year where every problem has seemed as insurmountable as the gritty drone shots of the West Side streets, "A Most Beautiful Thing" responds with beautiful and tranquil shots of men of different circumstance all rowing together in the same direction on the river.
Teamwork and cooperation are both among the most simple of concepts, yet they've largely eluded us when it comes to fighting systemic racism, containing coronavirus or any other challenge that might pop up in the future.
"A Most Beautiful Thing," then, is a much-needed reminder of the value of showing up, listening to each other and then putting in the work to get things done. If I could make it required viewing for every American this year, I would.
To learn more about "A Most Beautiful Thing," visit the film's website.