What makes a sports legend? A new documentary, “Citizen Ashe,” takes an inside view of the life of a complicated man who navigated through race, tennis, success and a devastating health challenge.
A giant among athletes. Ashe Ashe, Jr. counts as the first Black player selected to the United States Davis Cup team. Ashe, who would have been 78 this year, also made history by becoming the only Black man to win the singles title at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open. But he struggled to balance these personal and professional categories which represented his life.
The documentary “Citizen Ashe,” produced by Magnolia Pictures, CNN Films and HBO Max, will air on CNN on June 26. It will be available On Demand beginning June 27, the first day of Wimbledon.
“Your entire being is mentally and physically on automatic pilot while you are playing tennis,” Ashe said in a recording early in the film. “Everything concerned is on the razor’s edge and you forget what your name is.”
Born in Richmond, Ashe would be raised by his father, Arthur Ashe, Sr. after his mother’s death at 27 years old. His father, a strict disciplinarian, also raised his son Johnnie, five years younger than Arthur. Ashe, Sr. worked several jobs, including as a playground superintendent. That playground, which had a tennis court, would prove significant in the life of the then-young Arthur.
“I want to be the Jackie Robinson of tennis,” Ashe allegedly said.
The film project began upon the discovery of 47 boxes of notes and Dictaphone tapes from Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, home to Ashe’s archives. On-camera interviews featured Ashe’s brother Johnnie, his wife Jeanne Moutousammy-Ashe, tennis champions Billie Jean King and John McEnroe, Olympic medalist John Carlos and Ambassador Andrew Young.
The film takes viewers on a journey through Ashe’s athletic development while at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) to his early pro career during the 1960s – the height of the civil rights movement. He longed to speak out more about equality but held back until later in his career.
“When Black students in the South were getting their heads kicked in, I didn’t like myself,” Ashe said.
As his career progressed, Ashe emerged as one of the first Black athletes to speak out about Nelson Mandela and apartheid.
“I sensed confusion on what an athlete should be, especially in an African-American context,” he said. “Some people think we are all brawn and have no brains. I like to fight the myth.”
The film tracks Ashe’s career trajectory in the 1970s, his meeting and subsequent marriage with his wife and his heart attack in 1979. He retired from competitive play in 1980 at age 36 but remained active as a member and coach of the U.S. Men’s Davis Cup Team.
Then came the HIV/AIDS diagnosis. Ashe contracted the virus during his open-heart surgery in an era before health care workers realized the importance of screening donated blood. On February 6, 1993, Ashe died from AIDS-related pneumonia.
“He was not only an extraordinary tennis player but a powerful and important activist,” said the film’s director in his notes. “He was thoughtful, gentle and truly a man whose desire to do the right thing always seemed to motivate him on and off the tennis court.”
See the movie trailer for “Citizen Ashe” at https://youtu.be/uzgfFrOOfvs.