Tennis legend Arthur Ashe did not have the gusto of Cassius Clay or Jim Brown, and yet when it came to his work as an activist fighting against apartheid or raising HIV awareness, Ashe quietly made noise and an impact in his own way.
“Citizen Ashe,” a new documentary that explores the career of Ashe and grapples specifically with how he was viewed as an African American public figure, puts him in the context of other Black athletes who stood out for their efforts to bring change. But in speaking with TheWrap’s Steve Pond as part of the Awards Screening Series, directors Sam Pollard and Rex Miller argued that Ashe’s work as an activist was under-appreciated and that his views may have been even more progressive and influential than anyone realized in his day.
“What Arthur Ashe understood, I’m going to push, but I’m going to do it differently than Ali, I’m going to do it different than Jim Brown or Bill Russell, and I’m still going to make an impact,” Pollard said. “So it was an interesting dichotomy that Arthur was dealing with as a Black man in America in the ‘60s.”
Pollard and Miller likened Ashe to Jackie Robinson, someone who dominated his sport amidst an all-white institution. The fact that he was the first Black man to win Wimbledon and played within a completely white sport often made people question why Ashe wasn’t making more noise or would associate himself with the sport.
“He was always taught to stay calm, stay quiet, keep your head down and just try and make it. And as Sam said, he was just going to do his activism his way. It took him until he was 25 and won the US Open to feel comfortable, successful enough and supported enough,” Miller explained. “In Arthur’s words, he referred to himself as the raisin in the rice pudding, meaning that he was the only Black man in tennis. He couldn’t go into these white bastions in tennis and put his fist up and be a rock thrower. He had to find the balance, and he was going to do it his way.”
“Citizen Ashe” was assembled from a collection of 41 rolls of unseen photographs of Ashe at the U.S. Open as well as 30 hours of audio conversation with him that had only been seen before as a transcript. And in listening to the footage, both Pollard and Miller realized that Ashe, despite being quieter, more methodical and analytical, was more active in advocating for change than anyone gave him credit.
“Arthur is a very thoughtful, introspective human being. The challenge was to make sure we got as much introspection through that audio as possible,” Pollard said. “This became a documentary that was told through Arthur’s voice.”
“Citizen Ashe” will be released in theaters in New York on Dec. 3 and Los Angeles on Dec. 10, followed by a broadcast premiere on CNN and HBO Max in 2022. Check out a clip from TheWrap’s conversation with directors Sam Pollard and Rex Miller above.