“Citizen Ashe,” a new documentary about tennis star Arthur Ashe, is as interested in the political evolution of the subject as he is in his heroism on the court.
Ashe was one of the top tennis players in the world in the 1he0 and 70s, winning the US Open and the Australian Open, and the first and only black man to win a singles title at Wimbledon. But he also helped transform the concept in important ways as a political advocate for sports and political athletes.
“Everything he did on the tennis court was excellent, and what went off the court,” said Sam Pollard, co-director of the film.
Ashe, who grew up in the isolated south, initially preferred to keep a low profile on civil rights issues. But his presence on the court was in some ways a fundamental statement, because tennis was influenced by white players and was largely closed to black players. However, Asher’s talent allows him to expose the white world of tennis in important ways. For example, in 1963, he became the first black player to be selected for the Davis Cup team in the United States, and in 1968 he became the first black person to win the US Open.
“He was the only person of color on the tennis circuit in the 1960s. He didn’t get into that world and immediately set an integration agenda,” said Rex Miller, co-director of the film. “
Miller added, “He was someone who was able to cope with the pressure of prejudice and the road he had to take.” “He was not going to act like that [John] McEnroe and go crazy. He had to compose himself. Jackie Robinson went through the same thing. ”
But his rise to the rankings came when the United States was shocked by the unrest and the assassination of key figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. In that context, Asher felt the need to speak up. He came to use his platform to condemn racism, most notably when he traveled to South Africa in 1973 and fought against racism and used it to consolidate his participation in the South African Open.
“As an employee, he didn’t want to do it like Mohammed Ali or Jim Brown,” Pollard said. “He wanted to do it with more focus. He was going to make his speech and it was going to be a strong voice, but he was not going to be waving the flag.
Despite being a top athlete, Ash struggled with health problems at the age of 36 after suffering a heart attack. He contracted HIV from a blood transfusion when he underwent heart surgery, and died in 1993 of AIDS-related pneumonia at age 49.
“Citizen Ashe” premiered at the Telluride Film Festival for strong reviews. CNN Films will run the festival circuit before the release is shown on HBO Max. The directors hope the movie will shed light on a tennis great whose legacy has been less appreciated by some.
“He’s an extraordinary man that not enough people know about,” Pollard said. “He’s much more than the name of a stadium in Flushing.”
“Everyone has to find their own voice, and everyone has to use their own voice,” Miller said. “You can’t just sit around and let the world go. Arthur was constantly asked what he should be called by both white and black. Either ‘you should be more militant’ or ‘you are too militant’. He had a strong center inside himself that allowed him to form his own opinions and speak his own way. He was not a rock thrower. He brought people from all around to the table. I think this country needs more than ever. ”