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
NEXT:
Writing With Fire

Dallas Buyers Club


A pair of Texas-sized performances.

A pair of Texas-sized performances.

(2013) True Life Drama (Focus) Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto, Denis O’Hare, Steve Zahn, Michael O’Neill, Dallas Roberts, Griffin Dunne, Kevin Rankin, Donna Duplantier, Deneen Tyler, J.D. Evermore, Ian Casselberry, Noelle Wilcox, Bradford Cox, Rick Espaillat, Lawrence Turner, Lucius Falick, James DuMont, Jane McNeill. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee

Waiting for Oscar

2014 OSCAR NOMINATIONS
Best Picture
Best Actor – Matthew McConaughey
Best Supporting Actor – Jared Leto
Best Editing – Martin Pensa & Jean-Marc Vallee
Best Hair/Make-up – Adruitha Lee & Robin Mathews
Best Original Screenplay – Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack
WINS – Pending

The AIDS epidemic has been a scourge on gay men, responsible for the deaths of an astonishing percentage of the total population since the 80s. At the same time, it became a rallying point for the gay community, forcing them to organize – literally to fight for their lives. What they learned from that fight has served them well more recently in the fight to legalize same sex marriage.

But before that, it was simple survival and not all of those fighting to live were gay. Ron Woodroof (McConaughey), an electrician in the Dallas area, should have been on the Texas state flag. A  hard-partying, homophobic, heavy-drinking SOB who loved the rodeo and lived his life on the edge, gets the dreaded diagnosis in 1985 – not only does he have the HIV virus but full-blown AIDS and has about 30 days to live. Given his gaunt, cadaverous frame, it’s a miracle he’s even alive at all.

But life is too important to Ron to give up on it so easily. He does research and finds a treatment, currently in the test phase, called AZT that might save him. Unable to qualify for testing, he takes matters into his own hands and buys illegally obtained drugs. When it turns out that AZT is extremely toxic, he goes to Mexico to find alternatives which are provided by an expatriate American doctor (Dunne). Bringing enough back to the United States for use but also some to sell catches the eye of the FDA in the form of a bureaucratic agent (O’Neill) who keeps a wary eye on Woodroof.

At first Ron is just interested in selling the stuff so he can afford to buy more for himself, but with the help of a transgender named Rayon (Leto) and a shady lawyer (Roberts) he figures out that selling memberships in a buyers’ club circumvents the law. However, despite the support of a sympathetic doctor (Garner), her officious boss (O’Hare) who sees his patients flocking away from his lucrative AZT study and towards Ron’s less toxic treatments teams up with the FDA to find a way to bring Ron down, which is a death sentence to him and those who rely on his drugs to survive.

It is unbelievable that a federal agency would take the attitude that dying people should just lay down and die and accept their fate rather than to fight to live, but that’s just what has happened and in many ways continues to happen today. It’s all in keeping with the American and Christian attitude that gays and lesbians are less than human and deserve what they get when it comes to AIDS. That kind of thinking made my blood boil then and does so now. Why is compassion so lacking when it comes to the gay community?

McConaughey has been building to this performance his entire career. He is magnificent, having lost a terrifying amount of weight for the role and looking so gaunt I imagine that there was some legitimate concern for his health. Beyond that he plays the curmudgeonly and homophobic Ron without his usual likable charm; Ron is something of a son-of-a-bitch. Still, he grows through the film and though he remains somewhat arrogant and a bit of a blowhard, he does soften around the edges.

Leto, long an acclaimed actor who has been absent from the screen of late, returns in triumph, making the fictional Rayon the conscience of the movie. Although she is quite flawed  – Ron basically browbeats her about her drug use, knowing that it destroys her immunity system faster than the treatment can repair it – she still has a heart as big as the Big D Metroplex and then some.

I can’t say that this is a movie that will make you feel great when you leave the theater but you do see the human spirit at its finest. Ron, given 30 days to live, survives seven years thanks in part for his refusal to just lie down and die and accept what his doctors told him. He found a way to extend his life and in doing so, helped extend the lives of many others. That is in my book the very definition of a hero.

REASONS TO GO: Jaw-dropping performances by McConaughey and Leto. Moving and brilliant.

REASONS TO STAY: May be too emotional for some.

FAMILY VALUES:  The language can be pretty rough. There’s also some sexuality and nudity, drug use and some pretty mature themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jared Leto hadn’t taken on an acting role in five years prior to this film, spending time concentrating on his band 30 Seconds to Mars and the legal problems they were embroiled in.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/30/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 84/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Philadelphia

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: The Watcher

Forrest Gump


Forrest Gump

Life is like a box of chocolate.

(1994) Drama (Paramount) Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Gary Sinese, Mykelti Williamson, Sally Field, Michael Conner Humphreys, Margo Moorer, Haley Joel Osment, Siobhan J. Fallon, Hanna R. Hall, Marlena Smalls, Geoffrey Blake, Dick Cavett, Nora Dunfee. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

 

Every so often a movie comes along that simply connects on a nearly universal level. It becomes a cultural touchstone, referred to for years after its release and most people will understand the references to it.

Forrest Gump is such a movie. It won six Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor for Hanks (his second Oscar in a row after Philadelphia). Catch phrases like “Stupid is as stupid does” and “Life is like a box of chocolates” made it into the lexicon, not to mention “Run, Forrest, Run!”

Forrest Gump (Hanks) was born in Greenbow, Alabama to a mama (Fields) who rented out rooms in her large house to boarders, one of whom would turn out to be Elvis Presley. In fact, Forrest would have encounters with a number of historic, political and cultural figures of the 20th century throughout his life but he only has eyes for Jenny (Wright). She, however, had the rotten luck to be born to an abusive father and spends most of her life running away in one form or another whether that be through drugs or through a succession of skeezy men.

Gump isn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier – in fact, he might well be the dimmest – but he attends the University of Alabama on a football scholarship and ends up going to Vietnam after his college days are over. There he meets Bubba Blue (Williamson), a fellow soldier who like Forrest is a bit on the slow side but Bubba still has big dreams – running a shrimp boat of his own from his home in Bayou LeBatre, Louisiana. They are under the command of Lieutenant Dan (Sinese), whose family has a history of sacrifice in war.

Things being what they are, Gump gets wounded in Vietnam and while convalescing discovers ping pong and turns out to be rather good at it. He goes on a goodwill tour of China and upon his return home goes on the Dick Cavett show along with John Lennon and inadvertently supplies the former Beatle with the lyrics of his most iconic song.

He also follows through on his promise to Bubba, buying a shrimping boat and taking on Lieutenant Dan as a first mate, is blessed with the good fortune of being the only surviving boat in Bayou LeBatre after a hurricane decimates it’s shrimping fleet. This enables Forrest to buy more boats and with Lieutenant Dan’s business acumen leading the way, becomes wealthy.

But all his wealth, all his fame mean nothing to Forrest Gump. What matters is his Jenny, the love he’s carried his entire life but she is damaged goods. Can she ever love a man who isn’t very smart?

Zemeckis has in many ways created a movie that captured America during its most tumultuous phase, from the 60s through the 80s. It is a country in turmoil, rocked with anti-war protests and a wide racial divide. America is growing up on its way to 200 years old, going from the self-confident 50s to the troubled 70s, from JFK to Nixon and beyond. Most of the major events of the era are touched by Forrest Gump in some way, whether directly or indirectly.

Hanks gives a performance that is going to forever be one of his most strongly identified. Hanks will always be Forrest Gump to a certain degree and justifiably so – while Forrest Gump is intellectually challenged (slow is how they used to term it), he has a good heart. He is in many ways the ultimate American – not book smart maybe, but hard working and kind. These are for the most part attributes that Americans admire, particularly these days when education is regarded with suspicion in some quarters.

There are those who have analyzed the film and criticized it (and the Winston Groom book it is based on) as promoting an anti-intelligence mindset, which I think is a bit harsh. Many have called it an embrace of conservative values and an indictment of the failure of the counterculture and liberalism in general. Forrest, who embraces traditional American values, is successful. Jenny, who embraces the criticism of those values, becomes a drug addict and the victim of abuse throughout her life; she only finds peace and contentment when she is with Forrest. Conservative politicians have often cited the film as an affirmation of their political ideals.

I do believe that the movie was meant to be more apolitical than it is now believed to be. Regardless of whether you believe this to be anti-intellectual and/or anti-Liberal, I think we can all agree this is wonderful entertainment and a terrific movie. It is most certainly one of the best movies of the 90s, and one of Hanks’ most memorable performances ever – reasons enough to check it out if you are one of the few who hasn’t already.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the classic movies of the 90s.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Seems to celebrate heart over smarts.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some drugs, a little bit of sex, a touch of violence and a modicum of swearing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The legs of Gary Sinese were wrapped in a special blue fabric so that they could be digitally removed during the post-production process.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition contains a trivia track that covers most of the music (hosted by Rolling Stone contributor Ben Fong-Torres) and a Q&A session of Zemeckis, Hanks, Sinese and producer Joe Roth at the University of Southern California on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the movie’s release. There are also some audition tapes as well as a plethora of featurettes on the special effects and sound of the movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $677.4M on a $55M production budget; the movie was as big a blockbuster as it gets.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Zelig

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: The American Experience concludes