Thousands travel each year to watch tennis stars make history in his namesake arena. Others know he was the first Black man and remains the only Black man to capture the singles title at the US Open, the Australian Open and Wimbledon. Come Friday, millions will know him as the activist who unabashedly dedicated his life to injustice, inspiring a generation of future athletes-turned-advocates and a former United States president alike.
“Citizen Ashe” is the latest documentary from directors Rex Miller and Sam Pollard, chronicling the late Arthur Ashe’s advancement as one of the greatest to pick up a racket and someone who leveraged his platform in campaigns like apartheid in South Africa and the importance of AIDS research worldwide.
The 95-minute feature delves into Ashe’s roots, beginning in his hometown of segregated Richmond, Virginia. Recognizing that unless a change of scenery occurred, he’d be relegated to a life of recreational activity. He set his sights on the midwest, attending high school in St. Louis to better his competition chances. That paid off, as Ashe landed a coveted scholarship to play tennis at UCLA, which he accepted without previously visiting the campus.
Perhaps that decision was an early indicator that Ashe was rather exceptional, a personality unlike anything we’d seen of a Black athlete during that period. He comfortableness among his white teammates and classmates led many to question his identity as a Black man and allegiance to the community he was born into. Sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards, a contributor in the project, even exclaimed “we thought he was an Uncle Tom!”
Said remarks permanently subsided following the death of teenager Emmett Till. The 13-year-old Black boy’s horrific murder by white men on Aug. 28, 1955 in Money, Mississippi, forever changed Ashe’s perspective on speaking out against discrimination, setting the tone for a lifetime of grit on and off the court.
In speaking with Yahoo Sports, both Pollard and Miller acknowledged the significance of his 1968 US Open win. Historic for Ashe individually, but also monumental considering the national conversation surrounding race and discrimination. In connecting the two, the film shows Ashe’s reactions to the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the latter Ashe was paired with during an exhibition tennis match in August 1967.
“You can’t really look at Arthur, his life and his tennis career or his moment in the sun without providing some context of what was going on in the country,” Miller said. “I always thought it was important to situate Arthur’s achievements and his journey within the context of what was going on in the world. Ultimately, I thought we were making a film about a social activist who happened to be a tennis player.”
Pollard continued: “Ashe was different from the other athletes that were speaking up. But, he still had a voice in his way and furthermore proved African Americans are not monolithic. There are multiple ways to approach systemic racism in America, and Arthur found a way to do it on his terms.”
“Citizen Ashe” allows viewers to see both sides of the decorated champion. The fearless, no-nonsense competitor who called rival Jimmy Connors “unpatriotic” for his resistance to playing for Team USA in the Davis Cup was the same Ashe who became the best husband to Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe and adopted daughter Camera.
If you’re left feeling like you could have watched three more documentaries about the revered patriot, just imagine how Miller and Pollard must feel. The duo reviewed 41 rolls of film and uncovered a “treasure trove of information” at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, Ashe’s estate. When deciding on footage that made sense to include, Pollard said he wanted to maintain a sense of “emotional resonance that will keep the audience engaged.”
What was most important was the blessing of Ashe’s brother, Johnnie, and Moutoussamy-Ashe. Miller asserted there would be no “Citizen Ashe” without the latter’s participation.
“There are a lot of people who were close with both Arthur and Jeanne, and are very protective of Jeanne to this day,” he said.
Ashe died far too early due to AIDS-related pneumonia, but for the 49 years he lived, the champion proved he was always more than an athlete. Produced by CNN Films, “Citizen Ashe” premieres in Los Angeles and New York theaters on Friday. It will run on CNN and stream on HBO Max in 2022.
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