The life of Arthur Ashe, a man of great accomplishment and greater decency, deserves a monument. Unfortunately, HBO has cast this video memorial in cold, hollow stone.
“Arthur Ashe: Citizen of the World” is a well-intentioned eulogy that gets stuck in its own thick syrup; the ooziness of the filmmaking fails to support the weight of the man.
In his short life, Ashe was many things, none of them simple. A superbly honed and tempered black athlete, he triumphed in a white man’s game. A quiet man, his conscience spoke loudly. A thoughtful man, he understood and accepted the responsibility inherent in his own symbolism. On every level, he knew that his best weapon against racism would be the example he set.
It was an example he set unflaggingly. As a tennis player, he won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open and led his nation’s pursuit of the Davis Cup. As a citizen, he fought hatred at home, apartheid abroad and, in his last years, the fears engendered by AIDS, which he contracted from a blood transfusion during heart surgery.
All of which seems to have intimidated the filmmakers. “Ashe” rarely does more than scrape at facades; it preaches instead of examines. The narrative is heavy on pretense and often confusing. Most interviewees — Nelson Mandela is, thankfully, an exception — remain off-camera, talking over generic and sometimes unexplained footage — a maddening stylistic choice. The treacly piano music would flatten the fuzz on a fresh tennis ball.
Where “Ashe” does succeed is when it simply lets Ashe speak. In a particularly poignant insight, he admits his envy of John McEnroe for the “emotional freedom to be a bad boy.” Emotional freedom is a luxury we have trouble allowing our icons. Ironically, it was one freedom that Ashe, the freedom fighter, refused to fully allow himself.