‘Citizen Ashe’ Review: Doc Follows How the Tumultuous ’60s Helped Define the Trailblazing Tennis Pro

Telluride: Race looms large throughout Rex Miller and Sam Pollard's fascinating, candid portrait of the trailblazing tennis pro.
'Citizen Ashe' Review: Documentary Follows Path of Arthur Ashe
"Citizen Ashe"
CNN Films

Arthur Ashe was a trailblazer in tennis, a sport with a long history of white elitism. In “Citizen Ashe,” co-directed by Rex Miller and Sam Pollard, captures key moments in Ashe’s life but race looms large throughout. For the African-American tennis champion, it was an albatross that eventually motivated a thrust into the civil rights struggle. Wavering on a number of issues related to racial justice, and the civic responsibilities of Black athletes, was a tension that defined his life.

Confused by what being an athlete meant in the African-American context, Ashe, a Southerner who grew up in Richmond, Virginia in the 1950s, wanted to break the mold. Instead of taking up sports like track, baseball, and basketball, he chose tennis, because he wanted to be “the Jackie Robinson” of the sport, as his brother, Johnnie Ashe, recalls in the film, a social history of race, fame, and sports in America. It’s a compelling life story of a man who refused to be bullied, eschewing use of his early celebrity as a tool in the thick of the civil rights struggle, only to eventually become a leader in the fight for racial justice and equality.

“Citizen Ashe” is a fascinating portrait that weaves together his on- and off-court life seamlessly, with a running voiceover by Ashe himself from an old, almost ghostly taped recording. The result is a character study as much as a sociological inquiry. Viewers are continually reminded that he was an amazing tennis player, one of the most brilliant tacticians to play the game. His takedown of a rambunctious Jimmy Connors at the 1975 Wimbledon Championship was described as “strategic.”

During his breakout years in the late ’60s, though he was comfortable in the wealthy white circles of tennis, Ashe still faced racism on the courts. (“It was not a picnic,” he said.) At the same time, he was seen as a kind of “Uncle Tom” to Black ideologues. It was a source of inner turmoil. To survive, he repressed his anger and anxiety. He later admitted guilt in not speaking out or marching in protest as Black people “were getting their heads kicked in.”

But tennis was his obsession, and he focused on winning and nothing else. Ashe was 25 years old in 1968. He was a new celebrity. He had no past experience with the kind of media scrutiny that typically accompanied national commendation. Suddenly, his off-the-court activities and opinions were of public interest. The country was literally burning, and the “angry Black athlete,” accustomed to thinking politically, emerged. Ashe, however, effectively distanced himself from the movement.

At the 1968 Summer Olympics, John Carlos and his Black Power salute on the podium with Tommie Smith caused much political controversy. More than 100 Black athletes boycotted the New York Athletic Club for its discriminatory membership policies. And then there was Muhammad Ali. In the ’60s, Ashe and Ali were two of the most popular Black athletes, and they couldn’t have been more divergent when it came to their personalities and willingness to immerse themselves in the struggle. One was a flamethrower, the other was married to a non-confrontational philosophy that he’d adopted from his father, who had a reverence for authority.

Athletes were heroic figures that Black people looked to as role models, and Ashe’s initial reluctance to join the struggle didn’t necessarily sit well with other Black athletes. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar dismissed him as “Arthur Ass.” But the strong-willed, focused Ashe wouldn’t be intimidated.

“You grow up Black in the American South, you have no control,” a taping of Ashe’s voice says. “Your life is proscribed. And then in the ’60s, you have Black ideologues trying to tell me what to do. All the time, I’m saying to myself, ‘Hey, when do I get to decide what I want to do?’ So I’ve always been fiercely protective with anyone trying to control my life.”

Perhaps it’s a shame that he wasn’t more involved in the civil rights fight early on. But full-time, or even part-time activism doesn’t generally allow for Grand Slam victories, as Ashe himself notes in the film. Somehow, the riotous socio-political months of 1968 turned out to be his breakthrough year in tennis, and it wasn’t long before Ashe decided to become far more active in the struggle. Inspired by “a social revolution among people my age, I finally stopped trying to be part of white society and started to establish a Black identity for myself,” he said.

That evolving identity led him to become involved in inner-city programs on behalf of economic and social justice for African-Americans. In 1969, he campaigned for U.S. sanctions against South Africa, who enforced a strict apartheid policy of racial segregation, and the nation’s expulsion from the International Lawn Tennis Federation. His South Africa activism would continue for years.

Even today, the sport has few non-white professional players and the film’s highlights are undoubtedly footage of Ashe on the court, from his youth until retirement. He was often referred to as “Mr. Cool,” with an elegant technical form that came with a power that helped him play at the highest elite levels in tennis.

“Citizen Ashe” employs typical documentary techniques, with a blend of archival newsreel, photos, and family footage, and reenactments to take viewers along Ashe’s personal evolution that begins with a youth deeply influenced by his early tennis mentor, Robert Walter “Whirlwind” Johnson, and the death of his mother. Contemporary interviews with Ashe’s widow, Jeanne Moutousammy-Ashe, his brother, Johnnie Ashe, as well as fellow tennis legends Billie Jean King, John McEnroe, Donald Dell, and Lenny Simpson, and activist Prof. Harry Edwards, all help illustrate the cultural resonance of his historic Grand Slam wins, and how he managed a quiet, stoic dignity in public despite the racism he endured. Their words are variously reflective and candid.

Ashe would go onto win the singles title at the Australian Open in 1970 and Wimbledon in 1975, making him the only Black male player to win the trifecta, including the US Open. Still, it was the 1960s that truly defined him, as a young Black man coming into his own, on the cusp of great celebrity and thrust into a country’s own great racial reckoning.

Grade: A

“Citizen Ashe” premiered at the 2021 Telluride Film Festival. The film will debut on CNN Films and HBO Max in 2022.

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