Arthur Ashe is an icon in the tennis world, breaking barriers to become the first Black male champion of three Grand Slams: the Australian Open; the U.S. Open; and, most famously, beating Jimmy Conners in 1975 to win Wimbledon. But on the other side of the net is Ashe’s work as an activist, which becomes the focus of CNN Films’ documentary Citizen Ashe.
Director-producer Rex Miller, whose previous tennis documentaries includes one on pioneer Althea Gibson, and Sam Pollard, who most recently made MLK/FBI, teamed for the feature docu, which they spoke about during a panel at Deadline’s Contenders Film: Documentary awards-season event.
Miller said “the skeleton” of Citizen Ashe came from 47 boxes of notes and Dictaphone tapes he uncovered at Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, home to Ashe’s archives. The materials had been used as the basis for Ashe’s memoir Days of Grace, co-written with Arnold Rampersad and published just months after Ashe’s 1993 death at age 49 from complications of AIDS.
“I learned that Arthur Ashe from who I thought he was in 1960s was more than just a phenomenal tennis player,” Miller said. “He was a man who had a deep, deep commitment to activism; deep, deep commitment to erasing apartheid in South Africa; deep commitment to dealing with AIDS when he was diagnosed.”
That activism had its roots in Ashe’s upbringing in the Richmond, VA, the capital of the Confederacy, where he faced obstacles including the death of his mother at age 6 (he was born the same year as Emmitt Till) and Vietnam (his brother, Charlie, volunteered for a second tour of duty so Arthur didn’t have to go himself). That path led Ashe to success at West Point and UCLA — as a champion and as the first Black captain of both the U.S. Davis Cup team and the Association of Tennis Professionals. (Miller adds that one of Ashe’s biggest accomplishments is in 1969 starting the National Junior Tennis & Learning Network, a grassroots education program that now boasts 350 chapters.)
With all of that came health issues, however. Ashe had a heart attack in 1983, and he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988 after receiving a blood transfusion during the heart surgery.
“There was a lot of stress for African American men — high blood pressure, divorce, heart attacks,” Pollard said. “Imagine a man keeping all of this in for so many years all those years and the impact it has on him both psychically and physically.”
Miller said he found that Ashe’s “template” for activism “became one of inclusivity, bringing all schools of thought to the table — he was very much a pragmatist.” He resisted attempts by more militant colleagues like Stokely Carmichael, for example, to get more radical.
“In tennis, he did it all,” Miller said. “His history as an activist speaks for itself. The heroes of today in that — LeBron [James] and Naomi Osaka, all stand on Arthur’s shoulders.”
Check out the panel video above.
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