Mary Mazzio on “A Most Beautiful Thing,” Her Doc About the First African American High School Rowing Team

Mary Mazzio is a documentary filmmaker, former attorney, and Olympic rower. As a filmmaker, Mazzio explores the concept of overcoming obstacles, whether it is a fight for social change (“A Hero for Daisy”) or issues of poverty and lack of opportunity (“Ten9Eight”). Her last film, “I Am Jane Doe,” elevated the voices of young sex trafficking survivors and catalyzed bipartisan federal legislation signed by the President in 2018, and in an initiative with the White House, her film “Underwater Dreams” raised more than $100 million for underserved students.

“A Most Beautiful Thing” is now available on Xfinity On Demand. It will be available on Peacock September 1 and on Amazon October 14.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

MM: “A Most Beautiful Thing,” which is narrated by Common, and executive-produced by NBA Stars Grant Hill and Dwyane Wade, chronicles the first African American high school rowing team in this country. The team is made up of young men — many of whom were in rival gangs from the West Side of Chicago — all coming together to row in the same boat. It’s an amazing story.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

MM: Someone asked me, “Have you read this book by Arshay Cooper about the rowing team from the West Side of Chicago?” I had not, but being a rower, I immediately ordered it from Amazon. I was excited about a story I had never heard of, and a team I could not believe existed.

Arshay’s book arrived and it was inspiring, devastating, funny, sad, and hopeful, all in a single read. It was extraordinary that Arshay, the son of a mother who was struggling with generational trauma and addiction and the brother of gang members, found something special about the sport of rowing that changed his life. And the lives of his other teammates.

I finished the book and tweeted: “Amazing story @ArshayCooper.” Within about 15 minutes, a tweet rocketed back my way through cyberspace. “Thx @MaryMazzio, let’s talk.” Before I could respond, my phone rang. It was Arshay Cooper. “Would you ever consider…” And the conversation had begun.

W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?

MM: First, that the inequality of safety our children in low income areas face is a human rights crisis. Second, that the sport of rowing can be restorative, healing, and a pathway forward for young people living in traumatic environments.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

MM: When Arshay first came to me with his story, there was no budget for this film. It took some time, but fortunately we were able to find support from a wide variety of stakeholders.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

MM: Funding passion projects is always a challenge, but we had a group of funders who understood the impact we were hoping a project like this would have.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

MM: As a law student and young lawyer, I was doing pro bono work representing indigent tenants getting kicked out of their apartments. I was shocked to find high rent payments, but appalling third world conditions: no hot water, no heat, cockroaches. There were absentee landlords charging rents higher than what I paid, living in a safer part of town.

I dove into these cases, but over time, started to feel like I was not making any difference at all. I realized that there were other ways to make a difference — ways that might impact policy and be more scalable.

I started to think about politics and film. I was leaning towards politics, until I started thinking about what skeletons in my closest could come out — and film it was!

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

MM: The best piece of advice came from my mother: never take no for an answer. No means no for that one second, that minute, that day. But it does not mean no forever. And she was so right.

Worst piece of advice? Don’t listen to your mother.

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

MM: First, don’t take no for an answer. Second, as a woman in any profession, in any organization, you have to be your own PR machine. You can’t wait for people to talk about how good or talented you are. Ask for the promotion. Ask for the raise. It’s not gonna ask for itself.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

MM: Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” — because she’s a badass. Also, Patty Jenkins for “Wonder Woman,” because all the extras in the opening scenes were real athletes.

W&H: What differences have you noticed in the industry since the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements launched?

MM: Assault and violence against women has been normalized, both culturally and in film and visual media. And the courage of survivors to step forward, to have a voice, to speak truth to power, is extraordinary. However, there has not yet been any profound shift, either in film or in other forms of business, where women have 50 percent of board seats or positions of authority. Or people of color. There is much more work to do be done.

August 2, 2020
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