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.
He is a giant among athletes. Ashe Ashe Jr. was the first Black player selected to the United States Davis Cup team. Ashe was the only Black man ever to win the singles title at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open. He would have turned 78 this year. He struggled to balance those personal and professional categories he represented in life.
“Citizen Ashe” was produced by Magnolia Pictures, CNN Films and HBO Max. The documentary is now in theaters and airing on CNN and HBO Max.
“Your entire being is mentally and physically on automatic pilot while you are playing tennis,” said Ashe in a recording early in the film. “Everything concerned is on the razor’s edge, and you forget what your name is.”
Ashe was born in Richmond, Va. When he was 6 years old, his mother, Mattie, died at age 27. Arthur Ashe Sr., a strict disciplinarian, raised his sons Arthur Jr. and Johnnie, five years younger than his brother. Their dad worked several jobs, including as a playground superintendent. That playground had a tennis court. The seed was planted for what young Ashe would later pursue. He followed other Blacks in fields of sports.
“I want to be the Jackie Robinson of tennis,” Ashe is heard saying.
“Citizen Ashe” was co-directed by Rex Miller and Sam Pollard. John Legend is one of the executive producers. Uncovering 47 boxes of notes and Dictaphone tapes from Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, home to Ashe’s archives, was the film project’s start. On-camera interviews featured Ashe’s younger brother Johnnie Ashe, Ashe’s wife Jeanne Moutousammy-Ashe, tennis champions Billie Jean King and John McEnroe, Olympic medalist John Carlos and Ambassador Andrew Young.
The film takes us through Ashe’s career growth 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 wanted to speak out more about equality.
“When Black students in the South were getting their heads kicked in, I didn’t like myself,” said Ashe about not firmly stating his views. “I’m now speaking out more. I was more single-focused about tennis. I felt very guilty about doing that.”
As his career progressed, he was 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,” said Ashe. “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 and meeting partner Jeanne Moutousammy. They married in 1977. In 1979, Ashe suffered a heart attack and had open-heart surgery. Ashe showed his post-surgery scar while being interviewed calmly and matter-of-factly. He thinks about his death.
“The little boy in me wonders if I will see my mother,” he said. “It makes the specter of death more palatable. Maybe I will, in some form, see her again.”
Ashe retired from competitive play in 1980 at age 36. He 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 when he had open-heart surgery. It was a time before screening tests were created for blood donations. 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 Pollard in his director’s notes from “Citizen Ashe.” “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.
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