Arshay Cooper on location in Oakland © 2019 Richard Schultz. Courtesy of 50 Eggs Films
Back in early March, the new film A Most Beautiful Thing, directed by Mary Mazzio and based on the new memoir of the same title by Arshay Cooper, was doing some pre-theater release rounds in some very cool places - a Congressional viewing in Washington DC, and a festival appearance at South by Southwest.
Arshay and I had set up to do an interview about the film on Monday, March 16 - but by the time the day of the interview arrived, rowing was cancelled, SxSW was cancelled, and the March 27 debut of the film was cancelled. As everyone was scrambling to get themselves and their loved ones situated, we put off the interview until a more opportune time.
Since then, a LOT has happened, including a rescheduling of the film to a June 10 release, and then July 10, and now it is finally scheduled to happen in 17 cities on July 17. We finally got together last Friday for the very candid, powerful, and inspiring interview that follows. We will publish the full interview in two parts, with Part 2 posting on Monday; the interview has been edited very lightly for ease of reading.
Ed Hewitt: The first thing that occurs to me is that you have to be really busy. You have a new film, a new book, a new baby, whew! And then not to mention everything that is going on. How are you holding up?
Arshay Cooper: It's rough, but honestly, my whole life I learned to deal with things being rough. It was the way it was growing up. It's like inside the boat, there are crabs, and in real life there are unexpected crabs outside the boat as well. I learned to recover. And COVID as you know spread pretty fast - but hope spreads faster. I try my best even though it's emotional to just remain positive, strategize, and figure out how we can make it through this. And just offer hope to the world. Our world and our black communities are dealing with so many different things that have never really been addressed and fixed. So, I'm just trying to figure out how I can give to the world, and ask some questions as well.
Ed: This current moment tracks almost exactly with what you were trying to do in this film, and you had your antenna up in a way that is impressive. You get back together with your rowing team that was and is breaking racial barriers, and in the midst of it you get in touch with the Chicago police, and get them involved - and not just to show up for a minute, but to get in the boat, learn to row, and join in a race. It tracks right with the current moment in the most positive way possible. It's remarkable. Have you had a chance to reflect on that at all, how you were a year or more ahead of these things that are becoming real right now? Does that make sense?
Arshay: Yes, it makes so much sense. To me, when something that needs to be addressed but has not really been fixed, the tension is always going to be there. Doing the film, we were talking about the gangs, the gangs, the gangs against each other, and I remember sitting down and thinking "One of the biggest wars or disconnect was between what people call the blue lives and the black lives." Right? How to do we fix that?
For me, our team didn't get along at first, but what helped us was being in that boat together, pulling together. And I though just maybe we can do the same with the Chicago Police department. And I wanted to have the conversation. But the real thing is that I wanted, not even thinking something great would come of it in the future, I wanted them to value our lives and our community.
The Manley crew: Arshay Cooper, Malcolm Hawkins, Ray 'Pookie' Hawkins, Preston Grandberry, Alvin Ross © 2019 Clayton Hauck. Courtesy of 50 Eggs Films
What you saw in Minnesota, he had no value for this guy's life, and no value for the community. He sat there, put his hand in his pocket, and looked into the camera, and slowly killed a man. He didn't know the guy's name. I thought, I've seen this before.
So, I just figured that, if you can show cops who you are, have a conversation with them, show them our value - and of course we may wear hoodies or some of the guys may have sagging pants, but they are good people, they are contributors to society. There's no better way to do that than to use sports. Sport has been connecting different people and breaking racial barriers for years.
I knew I couldn't just hold up a sign and the cops would say "I'm going to listen to that guy." I knew I just couldn't write a book that cops are going to be running to read it. I knew I couldn't just scream off the bullhorn and the cops would open their ears. I knew I had to use sports, right, and I knew we had to use a sport where we can teach someone, when they don't know anything, so they can be opening from learning from the beginning. And then they will hear our conversations about what it's like to live in this community, and build that relationship.
And not only was it "Just come for one day," but I said "Race with us." Because the dialogue wasn't done. I wanted to continue the dialogue. I didn't say, "Hey, can we get back together to do a dialogue?" I said, "No, let's get back together to race." And then more dialogue will happen.
And this stuff comes out every three months, this brutality and similar stuff. I just wanted to build that relationship because if they knew us, our kids, and who we are, our moms, and they met them all at the regattas, maybe they will think twice about the way they approach things.
Ed: Are you still in touch with the police from the film at all now?
Arshay: Yes, yes, we are. I have been texting them about what they saw. I and one of the cops started texting right away; he said "This is horrible. This just doesn't make any sense. Doesn't make sense." I said "Yes, I'm hurting," and I'm glad that - you know, usually when this stuff happens, I'll call up a friend who thinks the same way as me. But to be able to call a cop from the other side, to have a conversation with a person that works in that field, to say the same thing, that I and the black community was saying, it made me feel just a little bit better.
He sent me a picture the other day of like him and other cops praying with the black faith community. I said," Listen, when this is over. We are going to do panels together with this film." And he said "Absolutely."
Ed: When you watch the film and look back at yourself as a youth. While watching the film, I have to be honest, as each guy told their story, I was expecting you to have a fairly stable home life, because you really had it together, even as an early teenager. Maybe you didn't come from a perfect home, but there was going to be a grandpa, or an aunt, someone uncle, etc., and that actually didn't happen. You had your act together as a young person. When you look back at yourself and you write a memoir and see this movie, do you have any sense of what it was that gave you this drive and positivity?
Arshay: Someone asked me, "What did you do different than some of the other guys?"
Ed: You were 14 years old and stopping by the other guys' house on the way to school to make sure they got there!
Arshay: (laughs) You know. I'm going to tell you what it was, and it's hard to sum up in a few sentences. But what it was... listen, my mother was a drug addict. And she recovered with an organization that doesn't just work with the parent, they work with the parent and the kid.
There a lot of organizations out there. Rowing organizations in brown communities, social justice programs, and academic programs. But they only work with the kid, right? And that's it. The organization that my mom worked with, I went there, and it was parents and kids. So there were kids saying "Hey, me and my mom went through this. But now it has changed." I was sitting through that, as a 13 year old, watching my mom recover. But I was hearing other kid's story, how their lives got better. I was like, "Wow."
That was kind of the beginning of hope for me. When I saw my mom change, I started to believe. And these kids that were my age were telling me how they did it. So I was like, "I have to tell other folks how I did it."
So as more organizations work with the family, that really helps. If you can go to a community as a rowing team, and you have a bunch of kids that would be first generation college students, if you take the parents to the campus with them, the parents who had never been to college, would be, "Oh my God. My son needs to be here." They have beautiful campuses, awesome professors. So what helped me was being part of an organization that first offered recovery for my mom's trauma, but also my trauma as a kid.
Ed: What was that organization?
Arshay: Victory Outreach.
Ed: There is some really painful stuff in the movie, and now it is up there on the big screen. How are you and the other guys handling having some of that appear so publicly? There's funny stuff, but it's serious; the whole ankle bracelet scene with Preston is too much, and really unexpected. I just thought, "Whoa." It's almost like a punch line, but it's not a joke. And now we're going to watch that shown across a huge wall.
Arshay: As Alvin's sister says, "Somethings need to be said in order to heal." So for us, it was all about the next generation. We know that there are kids going through the same thing that we went through. When my book came out, every person who read my book from high school said, "I was going through the same thing," but no one said anything. We didn't know how to get through that. But our stories tell you how to get through that. And we understood that we had to split ourselves open in order for the next generation to heal and more forward, much faster, and not wait until they become an adult to do it.
Alvin Ross on location in Oakland © 2019 Richard Schultz. Courtesy of 50 Eggs Films
Ed: So, you had to be sort of brutally honest to pull that off.
Arshay: Yeah. Yup.
Ed: As you went along, did any of the other guys say anything that completely surprising to you? Everybody is spilling their guts and sharing their stories without holding back, on camera. Were there things where you thought, 'even I didn't know this.' Or did you guys know each other so well that wasn't really the case?
Arshay: Yes. When you're young, you don't really talk a lot about slavery, right? Hearing Malcolm's story about why his dad didn't trust the whole thing. I said, "Ken (Alpart, the white coach who started the Manley program) is awesome! Why can't you just come to practice?" But his dad lived in the south where they were still hanging people when he was a kid. And that trauma, we didn't know. That's why it was hard to trust because of the generation of segregation. When I was older, I found out that was one of the reasons why he couldn't come to practice sometimes.
Malcolm Hawkins on location in Oakland. © 2019 Richard Schultz. Courtesy of 50 Eggs Films
But then with Preston, he was bullied so much in school, and I didn't really see it because we all had so much stuff going on. And he didn't have the money to buy some of the Jordan's and the clothes that everyone else had, and he wanted to go sell drugs just so that people wouldn't talk about him anymore, so he can buy the nice clothes. That is how he slowly go into it. All of us being in the community that really lacked resources and the system has failed young people, we all knowe know that we all kind of went through similar things.
Preston Grandberry on location in Oakland. © 2019 Richard Schultz. Courtesy of 50 Eggs Films
But to hear them say it, it hits you hard. To hear the guy that you were on the team with so long, and you took losses with, wins with, long road trips with, to hear them say they have been through that, and not as a kid, but as a grown man still kind of broken by it, was special.
Ed: And even then, you and the other guys seemed so comfortable on camera doing that, which was also kind of surprising to me. Even just the process of showing up and making a film is an experience most people don't have and most people don't handle that well. All of a sudden there are cameras everywhere, and you are spilling your guts.
Arshay: (laughs) Yeah. You know, everyone wants to be famous on the west side (laughs)! You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow, this opportunity comes once in a lifetime. I think it helped us just being around each other. We can be ourselves around each other. If I, individually, if we were doing a documentary on a bunch of people that we don't know, it would have taken away a little bit. But I think we are just so comfortable with each other, it just made it easier.
And we knew, too, that to reach kids that look like us and we believe deserve to be a part of a sport like this, that we had to bring it. We had to bring our full selves.
Ray 'Pookie G' Hawkins on location in Oakland. © 2019 Richard Schultz. Courtesy of 50 Eggs Films