The fight for civil rights is unfortunately a battle that still commences to this very day despite multiple changes to laws around the world that prevent discriminatory language and behaviour against ethnic minorities and sexual orientations. It has been a long-standing battle that reached a boiling point in mid-20th century America where the likes of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and many more took a stand against long-standing institutional racism.
The social and political fight quickly spiralled to engulf the zeitgeist of the 1950s and ‘60s America, with sportspeople like Jackie Robinson making a revolutionary stand in baseball, whilst filmmakers like Melvin Van Peebles created the Watermelon Man among other movies to stake a political point. One of these many civil rights revolutionaries was Arthur Ashe, the very first black tennis player to win Wimbledon in 1975.
Noted as a hero of Barack Obama alongside the iconic boxer Muhammad Ali, Ashe was a pioneering voice of the civil rights movement who began to notice the power of his political voice alongside his ever-growing success in the sport of tennis. Born into humble beginnings to his father, Arthur Ashe Sr. and mother Mattie Ashe in Richmond, Virginia, much of his life was spent with his older brother following the tragic passing of his mother when a young Arthur Ashe was just seven years old.
Taught to keep calm in the face of adversity, Ashe developed into a smart and composed tennis player who dismantled his opponents with stunning intelligence and careful precision, particularly when compared to many of his hot-headed opponents. This is wonderfully explored by directors Rex Miller and Sam Pollard in their new documentary that recalls the story of Ashe with loving grace, coming to life when they contrast his identity in the sport and his political efforts off the court.
An inherently interesting life, Miller and Pollard don’t have to do much leg work for Citizen Ashe to come across as a compelling piece of filmmaking, with his fascinating story lending itself to such a plodding format. Exploring how the difficulties of his youth sculpted his career as a tennis star, which in itself led him to become a political activist, the structure is a little too rigidly constructed, shifting to the next chapter in his story with unfortunate uniform precision.
His influence as a political activist and sports star in the context of the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement is perhaps his most defining legacy, leading the line for the later likes of Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff who are regularly outspoken about the same issues Arthur Ashe discussed. Such evaluation is, unfortunately, only tagged onto the end of the film, with the preceding 90 minutes dedicated to giving the iconic star a rather by-the-numbers biography that certainly celebrates the individual, though perhaps doesn’t do his legacy justice.
As one of the most important sports stars of the 20th century, Arthur Ashe is an underappreciated icon of the American civil rights movement who had an indelible impact on its flourishing influence. Whilst Citizen Ashe provides a satisfying summation of his life, it fails to dig deeper into the true impact of his work, leaving a little to be desired.