- Movie Rating -

Citizen Ashe (2021)

| June 26, 2022

When I was a kid in the late 70s and early 80s, I was never tennis-oriented, or for that matter sport-oriented.  Tennis was an interesting part of the television tapestry – the people programming the new fledgling cable channel HBO seemed obsessed with it.  I was, however, aware of the Mount Rushmore of players, which included Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Billie Jean King, Björn Borg and a skinny, quietly intelligent black player named Arthur Ashe.  I didn’t follow the game; I was more interested in the personalities.

Ashe always seemed the most interesting to me.  Paired against the hot-headed Irish temper of John McEnroe, he seemed poised and always in control.  One of the great things about the engaging new CNN documentary Citizen Ashe is that I learned that this control was not easy.  McEnroe became famous for screaming and bickering with the umpires, but there was a component to Ashe’s cultural background that prevented his from lashing out.  Growing up in the Richmond, Virginia (the capital of the Confederacy) during the time of hardbound – and frequently deadly – segregation, he had learned to keep his emotions in check.  Had he been white, he admitted, he might have responded to some of the umpire’s calls just like McEnroe.

That’s the beauty of Citizen Ashe.  Directors Rex Miller and Sam Pollard are interested in Ashe as a person first, and a tennis legend second.  Here was a beautiful man of caramel skin, a man of poise and intelligence breaking barriers to success in a sport that seemed white from the ground up – we see in the old footage that the officials, the uniforms and sometimes even the stadiums were solidly white.

Ashe ran this gauntlet and endured the riggers of racism in every form, just has he had all his life.  The payoff was a means of kicking down the door that prevented African-Americans from succeeding in a white-dominated sport.  His legacy would pave the way for the Williams sisters and Althea Gibson, not just by being on the court but by the phenomenal feat of becoming the first African-American to win the single titles at the U.S. Open, The Australian Open and, of course, at Wimbledon.

The climb to get there included the wrath of both blacks and whites.  He was propelling himself through the ranks in the late 60s at a moment when sports and politics were intertwined, when Muhammad Ali refused to go to Vietnam; when Kareem Abdul-Jabar protested the ’68 Olympics and when Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood on the Olympic podium with their fists in the air during the medal ceremony.  In this, Ashe would remain somewhat passive, as O.J. Simpson had.  He didn’t ruffle feathers and remained cool on politics.  This led many radical black activists to label him as an “Uncle Tom.”  His activism would, of course, come later.  After his success, he would address issues of Apartheid and he would become an advocate for AIDS when he contracted the virus through a blood transfusion

I write all of this knowing that I have just turned my review into an ersatz history lesson but, you should know, I learned ALL of this from the documentary.  I love this kind of historical narrative, and from a kid who rose from the Cradle of the Confederacy where he could have been killed just for walking down certain streets, it is amazing to see that when he returned it wasn’t all peaches and cream.  He had risen to the top but he still had some demons to fight.

The film is pieced together out of old footage, the usual talking head interviews and with audio clips from Arthur Ashe himself whose soothing voice reveals a very complex man whose hard times seem to build the man he would become.  Of course, the tennis footage is exciting too.  We get a breakdown of exactly how he managed to defeat Jimmy Connors at his own power game, and we hear in his own words just how frustrated he was by McEnroe’s theatrics.

But the cruelty, it turns out, is the AIDS virus.  The difficult road that Ashe had to travel to get to the top of his profession was felled by a life cut short by a disease that, by the time that he died, was still little understood.  In that, the film feels like it stops short, we feel that there was so much more that he could have been, that he still had so much more to accomplish.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2022) View IMDB Filed in: Documentary