“Citizen Ashe,” a new documentary about tennis star Arthur Ashe, is as interested in its subject’s political evolution as it is in his heroics on the court.
Ashe was one of the top tennis players in the world for much of the 1960s and ’70s, winning the U.S. Open and the Australian Open and becoming the first and, so far only Black man to win a singles title at Wimbledon. But he also helped transform the sport and the idea of professional athlete as political advocate in important ways.
“Everything he did on the tennis court was classy, and that carried over off the court,” says Sam Pollard, who co-directed the film.
Ashe, who had been raised in the segregated South, initially preferred to keep a low profile when it came to civil rights issues. But his presence on the court was in some ways a radical statement, because tennis was dominated by white players and largely closed to Black players. However, Ashe’s talent allowed him to break open the white world of tennis in important ways. In 1963, for instance, he became the first Black player ever selected for the United States Davis Cup team and, in 1968, became the first Black man to win the U.S. Open.
“He was the only person of color on the tennis circuit in the 1960s. He couldn’t come into that world and immediately set an agenda of integration,” says Rex Miller, the film’s co-director. “He had to do it gradually, and he had to pick his battles.”
“He was someone who could handle the pressure of prejudice and the road he had to take in breaking down the barriers,” adds Miller. “He wasn’t going to act like [John] McEnroe and go crazy. He had to compose himself. It was the same thing that Jackie Robinson went through.”
But his rise in the rankings came as America was rocked by turmoil and the assassinations of key figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. In that context, Ashe felt he needed to speak out. He came to use his platform to denounce racism, most memorably when he battled against apartheid by traveling to South Africa in 1973 and using his participation in the South African Open to push for integration.
“As an activist, he didn’t want to do it like Muhammad Ali or Jim Brown,” says Pollard. “He wanted to do it in a more focused way. He was going to make his point and it was going to be a strong voice, but he wasn’t going to be a flag waver.”
Despite being a top athlete, Ashe struggled with health problems, suffering a heart attack at the age of 36. He contracted HIV as a result of a blood transfusion that occurred when he had heart surgery, dying of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1993 at the age of 49.
“Citizen Ashe” premiered to strong reviews at the Telluride Film Festival. The CNN Films release will play the festival circuit before showing on HBO Max. The directors hope the movie will shine a light on a tennis great whose legacy is under-appreciated by some.
“He’s an extraordinary man who not enough people know about,” says Pollard. “He’s so much more than just the name of a stadium in Flushing.”
“Everyone needs to find their own voice, and everyone needs to use their own voice,” says Miller. “You can’t just sit on the sidelines and let the world go by. Arthur was constantly told what he should say by both white and Black folks. Either it was ‘you should be more militant’ or ‘you’re too militant.’ He had powerful core inside himself that allowed him to form his own opinions and speak out in his own way. He was not a rock thrower. He brought people from all sides to the table. I think this country needs that more than ever.”