A Most Beautiful Thing

Movie review by
Tara McNamara, Common Sense Media
A Most Beautiful Thing Movie Poster Image
Rowing docu offers powerful messages of teamwork, gratitude.
  • NR
  • 2020
  • 95 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Full of positive messages, encouragements, perspective shifts. Rowing/team sports is shown to help kids build strength, endurance, lasting friendships, keep busy. Teamwork, gratitude, empathy are themes. Film also compassionately examines cycles of violence, substance abuse, poverty; offers a look at how some students, through rowing team, were able to break out of them. Formerly incarcerated people express gratitude for their time in prison because they found personal transformation, often through relationship with God. Story is about opportunity for Black youths created by White men, which falls into "White savior" territory, especially since program only lasted for one year. But rowers make the team their own.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Documentary is about importance of representation: There were no Black rowing teams, so two White men set out to change that by creating rowing program in underserved Chicago school. The former student athletes, now adults, discuss how they grew from their rowing experience, share their stories with their kids and kids in their neighborhood. Movie is frank about some of the men's experiences with crime and prison, helps put viewers in their shoes to understand reasons why.


No violence is shown or reenacted, but detailed descriptions of violence -- including gang violence, shootings, murder -- are shared, mostly involving children or family. Stories of childhood incest/rape are portrayed in light of how trauma affects both victim and family members. 


Strong language includes "bulls--t," "crazy-ass," "goddammit," "hell," "s--t," a handful of uses of "f--k." In a song lyric, the "N" word is used. "Oh my God!" is used as an exclamation.


Mentions of "Jordans" and a Jeep in an aspirational way. 

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Some of the interview subjects discuss both dealing and using drugs in the past; film shows how poverty and trauma can lead to both and that racism and poverty compound the consequences. Empty liquor bottle shown alone within conversation of why people turn to drink. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that A Most Beautiful Thing is an inspiring documentary about the United States' first all-Black high school rowing team. Covering far more than athletics, it has themes of teamwork, gratitude, and empathy and shows the difficulty of escaping the cycle of poverty, drugs, violence, and generational trauma. The student athletes from Chicago are now grown men who talk about the horrors they witnessed or experienced as kids, including gang violence, shootings, murder, substance abuse, and rape. Stories about incest are described in ways that may be less than clear to kids. Although the rowing program positively impacted the men's lives, some eventually slipped into behavior/patterns they learned as kids, which led to consequences and transformation (sometimes through religion). The entire journey is portrayed with compassion, and 20 years later, the men are eager to reunite and row together again as an example for their community. Expect strong language, including "f--k" and "s--t." The film is executive-produced by NBA stars Dwyane Wade and Grant Hill and narrated by Common.

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What's the story?

Narrated by Common, A MOST BEAUTIFUL THING looks back at the United States' first Black high school rowing team, which consisted of members of rival gangs from Chicago's West Side. Twenty years after the team was formed in the late 1990s, the Manley High School rowing crew talk about the impact that being part of the team made on their lives and prepare to compete one more time in an effort to provide a positive example for their community and in memory of a late teammate. They invite Chicago police officers to join them, too, hoping to build empathy and a personal connection.

Is it any good?

Based on rowing team captain Arshay Cooper's self-published memoir, this documentary is powerful and informative. Director Mary Mazzio -- herself a former Olympic rower -- takes viewers back to Chicago's West Side in the late 1990s. Through the Manley High School crew team's personal stories, we come to understand how kids in underserved areas grow up in both an emotional and physical war zone, where many join gangs as a form of survival but still expect to die before their 18th birthday, and where the people who are expected to protect them aren't always capable because of their own trauma. Mazzio uses statistics and medical/psychological data to show the effects of generational trauma: anxiety, depression, and trouble learning. 

The Manley team's story took a twist when two young, self-centered White guys (one is described as "borderline racist," and the other admits he was culturally insensitive) realized rowing crews were pretty much exclusively White and got the notion to raise money to develop a rowing program with kids from a high school in an underserved area. They naively (and condescendingly) thought that they could train novices into gold medalists in one year and nab some college scholarships. That doesn't happen -- in fact, the team only lasted for a year. But what does happen is its own marvel, one that couldn't be seen without the passage of time. The 1998 Manley team is its own success story, and through Mazzio's storytelling, it's offered as proof that team sports can help break the cycle of poverty and violence, possibly steering kids away from potential trouble. The positive outcomes and messages in this film are many -- but when the crew team members put the lessons they learned into action to fulfill their goals and move their community forward, those lessons become outright inspiring.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how A Most Beautiful Thing inspires a compassionate view of the trauma of poverty. Did it have an impact on your point of view?

  • Try to identify all of the takeaways from this film. How would you describe its messages? What makes it inspiring? Who in the film do you consider a role model, and why?

  • How do the rowers transform their gratitude into action to help others? How does the film promote teamwork and empathy?

  • Why do you think the film ends with Maya Angelou's poem "Still I Rise"?

Movie details

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