Review: A champion on the court, ‘Citizen Ashe’ evolved into an activist off it
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“Citizen Ashe,” the elegant, engrossing documentary about late tennis great Arthur Ashe, is as much the story of how a Black athlete who set out to become “the Jackie Robinson of tennis” conquered a lily-white sport as it is about one man’s slow and steady move from the social action sidelines to center court.
Directors Rex Miller (“Althea,” about another Black tennis pioneer, Althea Gibson) and Sam Pollard (“MLK/FBI”) paint a skillful, insightful portrait of the International Tennis Hall of Famer using a trove of personal and public archival material, reenactment bits and extensive audio interviews with Ashe from the early 1980s. Mixed in are recent chats with his wife Jeanne, brother Johnnie, fellow tennis champs Billie Jean King and John McEnroe, activists Andrew Young and Harry Edwards,and other observers.
The result is a dimensional, richly contextual retelling of Ashe’s life starting with his strict upbringing in Jim Crow Virginia, a tennis-centric youth, a scholarship to UCLA and a military stint. He went on to win the first “Open Era” U.S. Open in 1968 (against the evocatively depicted tumult of the war in Vietnam and the American civil rights movement) and subsequent string of pro-circuit triumphs including three Grand Slam singles titles. All this while quietly navigating institutional racism, breaking color barriers and slowly — for some, too slowly — finding a way to use his fame to play his part in the battle for racial equality and social change.
The film goes on to show Ashe’s commitment to South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement and his alliance and friendship with the nation’s post-apartheid president, Nelson Mandela.
Unfortunately, Ashe suffered a heart attack at 36, leading to his retirement from professional tennis and a downward health spiral that included contracting HIV in 1983 from a blood transfusion during open-heart surgery. Five years later he was diagnosed with AIDS, but, in Ashe’s typically circumspect way, he kept the information private. That is until, facing exposure by the media, he was forced to reveal his status in a 1992 press conference, affecting footage of which is shown here. He died the following year.
The doc, which contains no small amount of thrilling tennis footage, also effectively peppers in clips featuring such current social and civil rights activist-athletes as Colin Kaepernick, LeBron James, Venus and Serena Williams, and rising tennis stars Coco Gauff and Naomi Osaka, to underscore how the struggle for equality and justice that began during Ashe’s early life remains a never-ending fight.
As generally open and straightforward as Ashe may come off in much of the film, he also remains enigmatic. There’s an arm’s-length vibe we can’t help but sometimes feel; clearly, others around him often felt it as well. (Which isn’t to say he didn’t also use it as kind of a secret weapon on and off the court.) Even in more candid moments, such as when he comments how, as a Black athlete, he didn’t have the luxury to be “angry” like such “bad boys” of tennis as McEnroe or Jimmy Connors, Ashe retains his trademark reserve.
Muhammad Ali, seen here in a few brief clips, was famously brash and forthright and, as a result, was often juxtaposed with the more diplomatic Ashe during their heydays. Yet if Ali wore his fieriness like a badge of honor, he also knew how to charm and disarm with humor. Ali also became an advocate for peace and tolerance. Despite his detractors, he found a potent path to being both seen and heard.
Could Ashe have threaded that same needle as overtly? According to Ashe and several of the film’s contributing voices, including tennis contemporaries Lenny Simpson and Art Carrington, it wasn’t in his nature nor was it a viable way to truly succeed at the time in his sport of choice. (Descriptions here of his stern, pragmatic dad show how Ashe, in many ways, was his father’s son.)
Even when Ashe said disruptive things, they didn’t always sound that way, which, right or wrong, made him seem more “accessible” than, say, Ali. And, for a good while, that was his modus operandi.
Still, as interviewee Edwards, who led the Olympic Project for Human Rights, relates here, back in the day he and other Black activists would wonder if the go-along-to-get-along Ashe was an Uncle Tom. (Kareem Abdul Jabbar dubbed him “Arthur Ass.”) Ashe would prove them wrong but in his own pace and manner.
Ultimately, if Miller and Pollard don’t paint a particularly warts-and-all portrait of Ashe, they don’t set him up as some sort of saint either: just a certain man of a certain era with an amazing talent. It’s a fitting tribute.
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.
Playing: Starts Friday, Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles; also on VOD
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