‘A Most Beautiful Thing’ Review: New Life on the Water

Over a hip-hop beat, the rapper-turned-actor Common narrates “A Most Beautiful Thing” in an exhilarating, mythical tone. The men at the center of Mary Mazzio’s documentary deserve such treatment: In the 1990s, they formed the nation’s first all-Black high school rowing team while growing up in Chicago’s West Side, where gang violence was prevalent.

Dynamic camera movements make the film come to life amid more conventional choices, as Mazzio tracks the rowers from their harrowing upbringing to their entrance into a white-dominated sport. In talking-head interviews, teammates including the captain, Arshay Cooper (whose memoir the film is based on), recall getting into rowing because they were offered free pizza at the first meeting. But they somberly articulate why the sport became a saving grace: Out on the water, they were away from the neighborhood’s barrage of gunshots and sirens. The film’s fast-paced editing makes it difficult to get to know individual members, but the men register powerfully as a collective, just like a real rowing team. These interviews are both funny and poignant, as the rowers discuss complex relationships with one another and with their white coaches, who helped turn the rowers’ lives around.

The latter half of “A Most Beautiful Thing” follows the rowers as they convene for their 20-year team reunion, training to get back on the water in hopes of inspiring future generations of Black Chicago kids. The documentary tries to be an uplifting balm during times of racial unrest. But it fails to avoid thorny territory when the team agrees to form an alliance with white Chicago police officers.

A Most Beautiful Thing
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes. Watch on Xfinity On Demand.

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