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Telluride always showcases a large number of top-flight documentaries, but perhaps this year, with a smaller number of narrative films able to be completed during the pandemic, the percentage of docs was even higher. One of the strong entries, Citizen Ashe, turned out to be an unexpected companion piece to King Richard, one of the few major studio films shown at the festival. Both movies highlight the contributions of Black athletes to the once all-white sport of tennis. Arthur Ashe, who made his mark before the Williams sisters were born, was a true pioneer, and the film by Rex Miller and Sam Pollard honors his place in history.
Ashe was born in 1943 in the very segregated city of Richmond, Virginia. His mother died very young, and his father raised Arthur and his brother, Johnnie. When he went to college at UCLA, Arthur was exposed to a more welcoming environment than he had known in the South. On entering the world of sports, he reportedly said, cheekily, “I want to be the Jackie Robinson of tennis.” He faced an uphill battle; as a news commentator says in the film, tennis at the time was “a symphony in white,” and he isn’t speaking only about the uniforms.
Venue: Telluride Film Festival
Directors: Rex Miller, Sam Pollard1 hour 36 minutes
When Ashe won Wimbledon as well as the U.S. and Australian opens, he made history. At first he resisted the idea of using his celebrity to advance the cause of civil rights, and some people accused him of being an Uncle Tom. Over time his views on activism evolved. He became fired up by the battles against apartheid in South Africa, traveled there to challenge the system, and, when Nelson Mandela was released from prison and made his first trip to the United States, Ashe was among the first Americans to greet him.
Still, Ashe never became the kind of firebrand that others wanted him to be. His diffident personality may have kept him from mounting the barricades. In one of the film’s revealing archival moments, he confesses that because of his race and the less-than-enlightened times, he didn’t feel free to play the bad-boy role that his rival John McEnroe (interviewed in the film) seemed to savor. “I envy him,” Ashe once said of McEnroe. There are many kinds of athletes, and if Ashe was not as outspoken as some other players, he nevertheless earned his place in the limelight.
His career was cut short by health issues that some other athletes didn’t have to wrestle with. He had his first heart attack at age 36, a result of genetic tendencies. (Both his parents suffered from cardiovascular disease.) After his second open-heart surgery, he learned that he had contracted HIV as a result of a blood transfusion. To his credit, Ashe, who died in 1993 at age 49, never blamed anyone for his illnesses.
The interviews in the film are perhaps a bit more limited than they might be, with the directors relying on the same people repeatedly. But the filmmakers had the advantage of enlisting the cooperation of Ashe’s wife, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, who also served as one of the film’s producers. A photographer, she undoubtedly helped to raise Ashe’s sensitivity to gender issues as well as to racial issues.
Citizen Ashe honors a man who went through something of a learning curve while undergoing more than his share of triumph as well as tragedy. The film (which will eventually be shown on CNN) will help to introduce worldwide audiences to his stirring story.
Venue: Telluride Film Festival
Production companies: CNN Films, HBO Max, Dogwoof
Directors: Rex Miller, Sam Pollard
Producers: Beth Hubbard, Anna Godas, Rex Miller, Steven Cantor, Jamie Schutz, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe
Director of Photography: Rex Miller
Editors: Ben Sozanski, R.A. Fedde, Lewis Rapkin
Music: Jongnic Bontemps
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