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(2021) Documentary (Magnolia) Arthur Ashe, Harry Edwards, John McEnroe, Billy Jean King, LeBron James, Andrew Young, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, John Carlos, Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith, Lenny Simpson, Johnnie Ashe, Art Carrington, Charlie Pasarell, Donald Dell, EJ McGorda, Victor Ellis, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, Tiana Melvina Woods. Directed by Rex Miller and Sam Pollard
Some people make the times they’re in; others are made by them. Arthur Ashe was one of the former; as one of the few African-Americans to play professional tennis in the 1960s and on through the 1990s, he was known for his unflappable demeanor, his intelligent strategy and his awe-inspiring power game. In many ways he was the Tiger Woods of his day; excelling in a sport dominated by people not of color.
But in some ways, he also was made by his times. He grew up in Richmond, Virginia – a soft-spoken black man who had access to tennis courts because his family lived in housing in a city park where his dad was caretaker; he showed a great deal of promise in the game and ended up with a scholarship to UCLA where he eventually earned a spot on the Davis Cup team.
If all that we remember about Arthur Ashe was his achievements in the game of tennis, he would likely be remembered as a giant of the game – the first African-American male to win three Grand Slam events (including the inaugural U.S. Open), but Arthur’s rise to tennis stardom coincided with the Civil Rights movement. Arthur, who as a black man growing up in the South in the Fifties, learned deference at an early age, was not as unspoken as fellow southern athlete Muhammad Ali, who grew up in Louisville. This earned accusations of being an Uncle Tom from folks like Harry Edwards, the San Jose State professor who helped radicalize Black athletes and use their celebrity to push for social justice, basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (who unkindly referred to the tennis star as “Arthur Ass”) and Ali himself.
That didn’t necessarily mean that Ashe had no opinion about civil rights; he had plenty. However, being a firebrand was never his style. Edwards remarks today that if you listen carefully to what Ashe was saying, he was in many ways more militant than some of the people who denounced him. Latein life, Ashe contracted HIV from a blood transfusion during open heart surgery and eventually died far too young at age 49 in 1993, less than a year after announcing he had contracted the disease and ten years after the fact.
For the most part, this is a fairly typical bio-doc with plenty of talking head interviews with friends and contemporaries of Ashe (including his brother Johnnie), plenty of archival footage as well as home movies and private video (some never before seen), and just a touch of hagiography.
But Ashe was a colossus of his time and remains a man who valued a life of kindness, one who spoke softly and used reason to persuade rather than shouting people down (a technique that many people these days would do well to learn). He was a disciple more of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela than of Malcolm X and Harry Edwards. He was in the strange position of being reviled by both sides, being called an uppity Negro by white racists and an Uncle Tom by black ideologues. It got to the point where he despaired “When will I get to decide how I want to live?” when faced with the dichotomy of opinions about his stands on the issues of equality and justce for Americans of color.
There are some excellent anecdotes, particularly from his brother Johnnie and his widow Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe (the latter of whom also was an executive producer on the film, along with such luminaries as documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney and musician John Legend). The jazzy score by Jongnic Bontemps is Cool AF and really helps establish a time and place for the film. I’ll be real honest; this isn’t one of the top documentaries of the year, but it is a very good one and the subject matter is more than deserving of the attention.
REASONS TO SEE: A really cool jazz soundtrack.
REASONS TO AVOID: Generally speaking, a fairly typical sports doc.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS:Ashe took up tennis, a non-traditional sport for African-American athletes at the time, because he wanted to be the “Jackie Robinson of tennis.”
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Optimum, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/3/21: Rotten Tomatoes:93% positive reviews; Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: King Richard
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
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