Last Friday, the One Earth Film Festival, the Parks Foundation and the Park District of Oak Park hosted a screening of the recently released documentary film, “A Most Beautiful Thing,” at the Kehrein Center of the Arts, 5628 W. Washington Blvd. in Austin.
Another screening of the documentary was held simultaneously on the grounds of Cheney Mansion in Oak Park, where about 50 people sitting 6 feet apart took in the story of the first Black high school rowing team in the nation.
Afterward, Reesheda Graham Washington, of RGW Consulting and Live Cafe & Creative Space, facilitated a virtual panel discussion that included Arshay Cooper, one of the film’s subjects and an author whose book serves as the basis for the film.
The park district’s screening of “A Most Beautiful Thing” comes amid a years-long effort by the Park District of Oak Park and leading community members to build a new indoor recreation center in the village and as Grace and Peace Church and By The Hand Club for Kids prepare to break ground on the North Austin Community Center, which is set to open next year.
The documentary works in the vein of Steve James — the longtime Oak Parker whose documentary films, which include “Hoop Dreams” and “America to Me,” don’t so much seek to resolve the multi-layered social problems that make up their core as much as unsettle established assumptions about those problems.
“A Most Beautiful Thing” explores the unlikely bond forged by several classmates at Manley Career Academy High School on Chicago’s West Side after they’re lured by free pizza into joining a rowing team established by Ken Alpart, a brash white futures trader.
Cooper and his teammates, now alums, recall Manley as one of the most violent high schools in the city. As teenagers, they witnessed someone shot dead in front of the high school during a drive-by. The neighborhood is dominated by gangs and drugs and guns — terrain that young teenagers often must learn to navigate on their own.
“We did not like each other, like we had no love for each other,” Cooper, referencing his rowing teammates, told Washington after Friday’s screening. “Every day going to school we had to be tough. And we had fear.”
The boys were as fearful of the water as they were of the West Side until they “started pulling for each other and developing that magical rhythm,” Cooper said. “That’s when it became meditative … that water was completely life-changing.”
The boys show flashes of brilliance as a rowing team, but they don’t end the season as champions. In fact, for years after the rowing team at Manley High folded, Alpart was convinced it was a failure. The boys, seniors in high school, left Manley with no big wins on the water and no grand plans to go off to college.
And then the boys became men, most of them entrepreneurs, and began telling people about how beneficial their experience on the rowing team, and Alpart’s mentorship, had been to their development. They had been baptized by the water’s tranquility and transformed.
“I love basketball, I love football — I’d run all my life, I’d been chased, I had a lot of trauma,” Cooper told Washington.
“So when I played basketball, it was a trash-talking sport and I wanted to fight. When I played football, the coach was always like, ‘Knock ’em dead.’ So [those sports] triggered a lot of trauma. But when you’re part of a non-conflict, non-combative sport, it actually reduces all that trauma.”
“I love that you are calling out this notion that there are more athletic opportunities for young, Black boys than basketball and football,” Washington said.
During their discussion, Washington asked Cooper to give some advice for leaders and stakeholders looking to build community in places like Oak Park and Austin.
“Move your organizations, move your community with the Black voices who live there,” Cooper said. “You can’t measure success on how you think it should be. Ken said, “We weren’t winning and I thought it was a failure.’ But you have to understand that getting guys from different gangs together is a win. Culturally, overcoming the fear of water is a win.”
For more info on the documentary, visit: https://www.amostbeautifulthing.com/.