A Most Beautiful Thing

29 Jul

Pulling together: Boston filmmaker tells story of first Black rowing team

Boston filmmaker Mary Mazzio’s documentary “A Most Beautiful Thing,” which recounts the travails of the first Black high school crew team in the country, was supposed to open in theaters back in March but the COVID-19 swell altered that and still holds a lingering effect on the film’s release. AMC, the theater chain that Mazzio has an arrangement with, has yet to get back up and running and so Mazzio, with her finger on the pulse of social issues and more topographically, in light of the George Floyd slaying and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests, is pushing ahead with the film’s release on Xfinity Friday, July 31, and releasing on other major streaming platforms at staggered future dates — Sept. 1 on Peacock and Oct. 14 on Amazon Prime.

Mazzio, a former Olympic rower, notched her unique arrangement with AMC when the theater was exploring means to address complaints that most films exhibited carried unflattering stereotypes of people of color and underrepresented communities, and as a result was actively seeking more positive and aspirational material. “Positively diverse,” is how Mazzio said (then) CEO Gerry Lopez described it. It was a natural fit as AMC snapped up several of Mazzio projects like “Ten9Eight: Shoot for the Moon” (2009) that detailed a business plan competition with teen entrants from high-crime, inner city communities like Harlem, Compton, Chicago and Baltimore, and “Underwater Dreams” (2014), which chronicled teens of undocumented parents who come together and go head-to-head against MIT in an underwater robotics competition.

Mazzio’s current project also came around by happenstance when she stumbled upon a tweet by Arshay Cooper, the captain of that Black crew team comprised of teens from Chicago’s tough West Side. Cooper was promoting his self-published memoir, “Suga Water,” about the team and their time sculling together in the 1990s. After reading the book, Mazzio tweeted him, he tweeted her and the two oarspeople became fast friends. “He’s a rower and I’m a rower,” Mazzio said.

The project began as something of a retrospective with Mazzio riveted by the inspirational story of kids from rival gangs finding peace and tranquility on the water (the film’s title is a catch phrase in the book by Cooper to describe such moments), then one of the film’s subjects, coach Mike O’Gorman, who launched the stereotype shattering program along with fellow financier and oarsman Ken Alpert, died. It was then that Cooper got the team back together for a reunion race and the film and its mission took on new depth and direction — which given what has transpired since March, is now even more relevant and on point.

Interestingly, Mazzio had known O’Gorman well before the film. “Mike’s an interesting guy,” she said of the controversial coxswain who had been on the same national team as her husband. Those that were coached by O’Gorman in Chicago share similar sentiments in the film; Mazzio even had to unfriend him on Facebook for being too “edgy and divisive.”

Other old connections also factored into the making of the film. When Mazzio rowed in the 1992 Barcelona Olympic games, she walked out of the opening ceremonies behind Dream Teamer Grant Hill. The two became friends and Hill later became one of the subjects in her 2002 documentary “Apple Pie” about star athletes and their mothers. Hill is also an executive producer on “A Most Beautiful Thing” along with fellow NBA star, Dwayne Wade.

How Mazzio slid into the directorial chair is an interesting story. She grew up in Needham, one of four daughters raised by a single mother (following a divorce), attended Mount Holyoke College and then went to Georgetown Law. After her Olympic stint and some time in Korea, she settled in as an attorney at Brown and Rudnick but also did pro-bono work for indigent families who were “paying crazy rents for inhumane living conditions.” It was then that Mazzio said she started to think, “I’m not improving anyone’s life in any serious way.” She flirted with the idea of going into politics but also loved film and said she believed it was a “great way to communicate,” so she started taking film classes at Boston University at night, where she’s still 4 credits shy of her degree. With the encouragement of her husband she turned her thesis project into a feature non-narrative. The result, “A Hero for Daisy” (1999) detailed the poor conditions for female athletes at Yale University in the 1970s that were vehemently protested by two-time Olympic rower Chis Ernst. The film struck a nerve, became something of a cult hit and Mazzio’s production company 50 Eggs was born.

Of the company’s quirky name, Mazzio, currently a filmmaker in residence at Babson College laughs and says, “I wanted to call it ‘Medusa’s Revenge.’ My husband’s reaction was hilarious, ‘not quite sure how corporate funders or foundation heads will react to a logo of a woman with snakes coming out of her head.’” He then reminded her of their favorite film, the Paul Newman anti-hero classic, “Cool Hand Luke” and Eggs happened, inspired by the iconic hard-boiled egg eating contest in the film.

In “A Most Beautiful Thing” Mazzio explores just how traumatic it can be growing up in violent crime zones where gang life is the only way to survive. Experts interviewed float numbers of a 40 percent PTSD rate versus that of 25 percent for war veterans who see combat. The developmental challenges subsequently illuminated are sobering. “There’s so much extraordinary talent squandered,” Mazzio says. Still, at the heart of the film remains Cooper and his barrier-breaking teammates who catch plenty of crabs both on the water and in the streets. What pervades is the notion of team, perseverance and loyalty. Their journey against such stacked odds is truly a most beautiful thing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: