CITIZEN ASHE (2021)
Featuring Neil Amdur, Johnnie Ashe, Lucia Ashe, Ingrid Bentzer, Charles Brown, John Carlos, Art Carrington, Carole Dell, Donald Dell, Cliff Drysdale, Harry Edwards, Saad El-Amin, Richard Evans, Jaleesa Hazzard, Irwin Holmes, Billie Jean King, Bill Malkemes, John McEnroe, Jeanne Moutousammy-Ashe, Charlie Pasarell, Lenny Simpson, Odessa Cunningham Staggers, Gertie Bea Cunningham Taylor, Steve Tignor, Andrew Young and archival footage of Arthur Ashe.
Directed by Rex Miller and Sam Pollard.
Distributed by Magnolia Pictures. 96 minutes. Not Rated.
It is fitting that Citizen Ashe is coming out mere weeks after King Richard. That film tells the story of Venus and Serena Williams becoming the first African American girls to break into the extremely white-bread world of women’s tennis. While that is a very impressive achievement, the color line in tennis had been broken open a few decades earlier by Arthur Ashe.
Ashe became one of the marquee players in arguably one of the best eras of men’s tennis – going toe to toe with such legends as Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg. While his career was never quite as dominating as Serena Williams’ – he was more on the level of Venus; one of the greats, but not the greatest of all time – for many years he was the face of black people in the sport. He opened the eyes of many people to the sport and equality. (As one of the talking heads here points out, until Arthur Ashe won Wimbledon, most black people had never even heard of it.)
Early on Citizen Ashe shares an old quote about tennis being a sport of white – white outfits, white balls, and white country clubs. Arthur Ashe brought some color into the sport. Arthur Ashe was the Jackie Robinson of tennis. Like Robinson, Ashe was also a quiet, humble presence on the court and in the world.
Citizen Ashe shares a film clip of former US President Barack Obama saying in a speech that the two men who first defined black accomplishment for her were Muhammed Ali and Arthur Ashe. While those two men’s importance in the diversifying of their individual sports were very similar, their personal styles could not have been more polar opposite.
Ali was outgoing, in-your-face, a little cocky and very verbal about his beliefs and convictions. Ashe was quieter, shier, more “well-behaved” so to speak. He knew that as a black man in a white man’s world, every little thing he did would be scrutinized, so he basically toed the line. His beliefs were also much more moderate than Ali’s. In fact, one black activist in Citizen Ashe acknowledges that back in the day, many people in the black power movement felt that Ashe did not do enough to support the cause. They even called him an “Uncle Tom” at the time.
Arthur Ashe was more of a diplomat. He played along to get along. It wasn’t until years after his tennis playing career ended that he became a tireless philanthropist and activist for racial equality – as well as many other causes.
His tragically young death at 49 in 1993 – he had contracted AIDS from a tainted blood transfusion while having surgery for a heart attack – cast yet another shadow on the legacy of a good, but complicated man. Even though he survived over four years with the illness, at the height of the malady’s destructive reign, the illness placed a bit of a stigma – fair or not – on his life. In fact, Ashe did not want to go public with his diagnosis, and only did so because it was leaked to the press.
However, his death – as sad as it was – is just a small part of his life.
Citizen Ashe has tons of footage of some of Ashe’s greatest matches, showing him as an intelligent, instinctual, graceful, overpowering athlete.
The film also shows his later career pivot into coaching the US Davis Cup team, although this part of Citizen Ashe probably spends more time on his star player – tennis bad boy John McEnroe – than it spent on Ashe’s time as a teacher of young players.
It also charts his growth as a human being and his engagement in such diverse causes as heart health, civil rights and anti-Apartheid. (Ashe says in a clip that meeting Nelson Mandela was a defining moment in this life.) He also became more active in women’s rights when he married professional photographer Jeanne Moutousammy-Ashe, who is interviewed here extensively.
Citizen Ashe is a much-needed reminder of an important, groundbreaking, gentle, good man who was taken from the world way too soon.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2021 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: December 3, 2021.