Citizen Ashe


Arthur Ashe: More than a tennis star.

(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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Writing With Fire

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Selma


Marching into history.

Marching into history.

(2014) True Life Drama (Paramount) David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Oprah Winfrey, Giovanni Ribisi, Andre Holland, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Colman Domingo, Omar J. Dorsey, Common, Tessa Thompson, Dylan Baker, Stephan James, Trai Byers, Henry G. Sanders, Keith Stanfield, Charity Jordan, Tim Roth, Stan Houston, Stephen Root, Nigel Thatch, Cuba Gooding Jr., Alessandro Nivola, Jeremy Strong, Lorraine Toussaint, Tara Ochs. Directed by Ava DuVernay

Selma is a watershed moment in American history and in particular the history of the civil rights movement. The brutality of Southern oppression on its African-American citizen was beamed to all our living rooms for all to see. Martin Luther King’s efforts to organize and call attention on the suppression of voting rights for African-Americans would lead to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that he had long championed and ended decades of African-Americans having no voice in the governing of their communities, states and country.

In 1965 the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has just come into law and while it is a magnificent piece of legislation preventing discrimination, in the South it may not have been signed into law at all. Those African-Americans attempting to register to vote, much as activist Annie Lee Cooper (Winfrey) was, were met with poll taxes, or impromptu quizzes that nobody could answer, white or black in a desperate attempt for white racist Southerners to hold onto power in Dixie.

Martin Luther King (Oyelowo), already a landmark civil rights activist or, as he is known by those who oppose him, agitator as J. Edgar Hoover (Baker) puts it, approaches President Lyndon Baines Johnson (Wilkinson) to enact legislation that will prevent the kinds of abuses taking place in voter registration in the South but LBJ is less inclined to do that; he has his War on Poverty to consider, which he feels will ultimately be more beneficial to the black community. He has just too much going on to put any energy into King’s demands at the moment, but being the consummate politician he assures the civil rights leader that he will get right on it…in a couple of years. Hoover, on the other hand, wants this whole civil rights thing nipped in the bud. His surveillance of Dr. King has revealed some strain in his marriage to his wife Coretta (Ejogo) and he wants to exploit that, but Johnson prevents it.

With the violence escalating in the South, King knows he can’t wait. He decides to go to Selma, a small town in Alabama whose sheriff Jim Clark (Houston) is particularly mean and stupid and likely to do something that will give King the ammunition he needs. Activists in the Selma area are only too happy to see a national figure like Dr. King arrive on the scene, although John Lewis (James) – a future congressman who is still serving today – and James Foreman (Byers) of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, are suspicious of his motives.

During an evening non-violent march, the protestors are attacked by police. Three of them – Cager Lee (Sanders), his daughter Viola Lee Jackson (Jordan) and his grandson Jimmy Lee Jackson (Stanfield) are chased into a diner. When the police arrive, they make a point of beating the crap out of the old man and his kin. When Jimmy Lee tries to protect them, he is shot in the abdomen and killed. This galvanizes the organizers, leading Rev. James Bevel (Common) to suggest a march from Selma to Montgomery.

This is exactly what Governor George Wallace (Roth) doesn’t want. His right hand man in the state troopers, Colonel Al Lingo (Root) is enlisted to take care of things. In the meantime, in order to prevent the march, the President allows Hoover to carry on with his plans, delivering a tape of Dr. King allegedly having sex with another woman. While the tape is clearly fabricated, she gets King to admit to having had affairs. In order to repair things with his family, King decides to skip the March which is set for March 7, 1965. On that day, Alabama troopers face about 600 marchers and attack them on national television, bloodying the peaceful protesters – some of them, like Amelia Boynton (Toussaint) into unconsciousness – and horrifying a nation.

King, horrified beyond measure, returns to Selma with his wife’s blessing. He knows that the march needs to take place or else it would all be for nothing. He calls on the nation, to people of conscience of all colors to come to Selma and march with him. Many do come, including Sammy Davis Jr., Harry Belafonte, Michigan activist Viola Liuzzo (Ochs) and Unitarian minister James Reeb (Strong). With a tense stand-off between the forces of racism and the forces of freedom, would the march take place and would change come to the South?

History tells us that the March did finally take place successfully and that the Voter Rights Act of 1965 that Johnson championed would become law (until it was dismantled by the Supreme Court two years ago). Like Titanic, most of us know how the story ends. In the hands of a gifted director, we would feel the tension of those participating because they, unlike us, did not know how the story would end.

DuVernay for the most part accomplishes this. She is aided in this to a very large extent by Oyelowo who delivers a remarkable performance as the late Dr. King. There is a tendency for us to deify certain people – Dr. King, Gandhi, President Lincoln and so forth – to the point that we forget that they are human beings, far from perfect and full of frailties. DuVernay impressively gets that point across that Dr. King, as great a man and courageous a man as he was, also did things that he wasn’t proud of, also made mistakes and also had a playful sense of humor. At times he needed encouragement, phoning Mahalia Jackson in the middle of the night to hear her sing a gospel song so that he might be reassured. At times he wasn’t as strong as his iron-willed wife Coretta was. Oyelowo captures these moments and makes the man relatable to all of us.

In fact most of the cast is impressive although Wilkinson is miscast as LBJ. The LBJ I remember was a force of nature and larger than life and Wilkinson makes him more of a backrooms conniver, which he also was but there was a charisma to him that Wilkinson doesn’t capture. Many who knew the late President have complained that the film does an injustice to his memory in its portrayal of him as obstructive and unsupportive which history tells us he was not, but this isn’t the LBJ story.

It’s not even Dr. King’s story, although he naturally dominates the screen time here. It is a story for all of us, about the tribulations of the Civil Rights activists and what they actually went through to get the rights we take for granted today. It also is a stark reminder of how far we have yet to go, with events in Ferguson, Missouri mentioned pointedly in the movie’s post-credits Oscar-nominated song and parallels to modern oppression of the African American community.

Near the end we see footage purportedly of the actual March with some of it archival, although we mostly see celebrity marchers like Davis and Belafonte. Due to the rights to Dr. King’s speeches being owned by DreamWorks for a Steven Spielberg movie about the Civil Rights era that has not yet come to fruition, we don’t get to hear the actual words of Dr. King’s speeches; instead, DuVernay had to rewrite them so that they were in the style of his oratory but not his actual words. Shame on DreamWorks for not allowing the film to use the words inspiring to so many.

This is one of the better movies of the Holiday Awards season and it justly received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. Some are moaning about DuVernay not receiving a nomination for Best Director but truth be told those that did receive the nomination also deserved to be nominated; what separated the five films that got the nod and this one are essentially splitting hairs; to my mind, she had a tendency to be a bit ham-handed in some of the activism scenes with swelling strings to the point that you couldn’t hear the dialogue but were supposed to feel inspired. It is a bit manipulative and could have been handled better. She should have trusted the material to bring out those feelings without hitting us in the head with them.

Nitpicking aside, this should be mandatory viewing for all of us who think that the need for activism has ended. We should all understand what was endured by those who fought for the rights of African-Americans and continue to be endured. Freedom is not given, it must be fought for and so many continue to fight. The legacy of Selma is with us still and should inspire all of us to rise up and support those who still need to shine the light on practices that should outrage all Americans – but still doesn’t. We shall overcome indeed, but we haven’t yet.

REASONS TO GO: MLK is humanized here. Captures the scope of the march and the events surrounding it. About damn time there was a movie about Selma.
REASONS TO STAY: Not sure about the LBJ portrayal. Could have used archival footage better.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some disturbing violence of defenseless people being beaten, some brief strong language, adult themes and some suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Free screenings of the film were made available to 275,000 high school and middle school students.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/24/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 89/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Detachment