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‘Citizen Ashe’ Film Review: Arthur Ashe Doc Movingly Chronicles Tennis Champ and Human Rights Activist

Telluride 2021: A wealth of archival footage and a powerful thematic thread of political evolution give power to this sports documentary

There are the sports icons who inspire fans and wannabe players. Then there are the athletes who, apart from the stat sheet, change their sport for the better, use their position to help others, and generally spur us to want to be better people. Tennis has a few of those throughout its history, and two of them won singles titles at Wimbledon in 1975: women’s pioneer Billie Jean King, and men’s champion Arthur Ashe.

Long overdue as a multifaceted documentary subject for his sports achievements, influence and activism, he is finally the center of one with “Citizen Ashe,” an engaging, moving portrait co-directed by Rex Miller (“Behind These Walls”) and Sam Pollard (“MLK/FBI”).

The ins and outs of Ashe’s groundbreaking win in England over rival Jimmy Connors are thrillingly depicted, as are his equally historic victory at the very first U.S. Open in 1968. But “Citizen Ashe,” dominated by rich archival footage and often driven by Ashe’s own words from myriad interviews over the course of his very public life, is less a tennis documentary than about the evolution of a tennis star, a Black American who figured out how to engage with the world beyond established rules and white lines both literal and figurative.

On a tennis court — he practically grew up one one, since family home in Richmond, Virginia, stood on park grounds his caretaker father oversaw — the lanky, regal and intelligent baseliner spoke with his racquet, breaking through with a smoothly overpowering game and an unruffled presence. That calm demeanor was initially no accident, however: To have any chance in the Jim Crow South as a Black tennis player in the ‘60s — as Ashe’s contemporaries from that era (Art Carrington, Lenny Simpson) and younger brother Lennie inform us onscreen in interviews — they couldn’t give white-run tournaments a reason to reject them beyond the color of their skin.

With a UCLA scholarship and participation on the U.S. Davis Cup team, Ashe refined his game and gentlemanliness further, which afforded him results and popularity in the tennis world. (The fantastic archival clips of his clean-cut college days, when he very much looks like a fish IN water, would be unremarkable if he weren’t the only person of color in them.) But in an increasingly outspoken era for politically minded Black athletes represented by John Carlos, Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, Ashe’s non-confrontational path to being a role model got him labeled an Uncle Tom. Not that Ashe didn’t sense what was going on; that Black-specific legacy of internalizing stress and anger can also, the film underscores, be viewed as a factor in Ashe’s later heart problems.

But 1968 would change everything, for both Ashe’s fortunes as a tennis player and how he transcended his sport in the wake of a turbulent year for social progress. The surprise was that, as civil rights activist and initial Ashe critic Harry Edwards puts it in the film, when Ashe started speaking up off the court — in speeches, in interviews, at protests, in a tantalizing excerpt from a televised round table with prominent Black athletes featuring Ashe, Edwards and Jackie Robinson — he could sound more militant than anybody.

Central to conveying Ashe’s humanitarian works is the story of his campaign against Apartheid South Africa, which involved controversially playing there to show the country’s Black population what a free Black man looked like. It also sets up the emotional power of a newly free Nelson Mandela, asked who in America he most wished to meet, naming Ashe, who became a friend. Only two years later, in 1992, Ashe — by then happily married, with a young daughter — would face the last of his battles: the forced public disclosure of his having contracted AIDS from an HIV-tainted blood transfusion, and turning it into a fight for more funding to battle the disease and against the diagnosis’ stigma. He was only 49 when he died the following year. (His photographer wife, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, is an interviewee in the film and one of its producers.)

At its best — when the flow of voices, archival clips (co-director Pollard being a master at the textural impact of found footage), and nicely blended-in recreations made to look archival, is thematically strongest — “Citizen Ashe” becomes a documentary about how experience becomes voice becomes action. Why Ashe excelled in a match (his perseverance, his smarts, his poise, his fight, his talent) is why he moved mountains outside the sport, too. The largest stadium in tennis is named after him, but his legacy is in how Colin Kaepernick, Serena and Venus Williams, LeBron James, and Naomi Osaka refuse to separate their careers from their advocacy.

There’s a telling moment in the documentary when Ashe is interviewed about the antics of then-ascendant John McEnroe, and admits to being irritated, but also — to this middle-aged Black man who’d achieved so much — envious of the privilege they represented. “McEnroe had the emotional freedom to be a bad boy.” Said the Great Man.

“Citizen Ashe” makes its world premiere at the 2021 Telluride Film Festival.