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

City of Ali


The Greatest takes his last ride through his beloved Louisville.

(2021) Documentary (Abramorama) Muhammad Ali, Bill Clinton, Evander Holyfield, Rasheda Ali, Bill Plaschko, Dick Cavett, Lawrence Montgomery, Asaad Ali, Greg Fischer, Hannah Drake, Allen Houston, Rev. Charles Elliott, Greg Fisher, Atallah Shabazz, Chief Sydney Hall, Lonnie Ali, John Ramsey, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Alice Houston, Rahman Ali, Natasha Mundkur, Ahmed Edmund, Hannah Storm. Directed by Graham Shelby

 

Muhammad Ali was one of the most popular figures in the 20th century and the early years of the 21st. He was also polarizing in a lot of ways – his cocky demeanor was described as “uppity” by a certain segment of the American South, who took umbrage when he chose to refuse to enlist in the Army during the Vietnam war, explaining that the Viet Cong weren’t oppressing his people, weren’t lynching them. He had no beef with them. He promptly had his title stripped from him and spent three of what should have been the most productive of his career on the sidelines.

He changed his name from Cassius Clay Jr., which he called “a slave name,” and embraced the teachings of Elijah Muhammad’s Black Muslims. He was often infuriating with his boasts, mainly because he could back them up in the ring. He was outspoken, but he was also a humanitarian, giving of himself to all sorts of causes, and giving of himself in ways that most celebrities of his stature would never even consider. A Louisville sportswriter recalls attending a boxing match with the Champ at the 2000 Olympics, and after congratulating the winner of he match, going into he locker room to find the boxer who lost the match and spending time giving him a pep talk, sparring with him and in general, giving the young man the thrill of his life.

Mayor Greg Fischer diplomatically puts it that Ali had a complicated relationship with Louisville. There was no doubt that he loved the neighborhood he grew up in and the people he grew up with, but at the same time, like most cities in the American South, it was heavily segregated and there were places he could go, things he couldn’t do and he certainly would have experienced racism firsthand.

When he died at age 74, he had already ben planning his funeral. He and his family knew that there would be an outpouring of grief, and there was. The Ciiy of Louisville assisted with the logistics, assigning traffic control. The Muhammad Ali Center, which housed the museum of Ali’s career and artifacts, threw open its doors so that anyone could visit. One woman covered the roadway leading to the cemetary with rose petals so the funeral procession drove over them, creating a perfume as it went. They also somewhat spontaneously drove the casket from the ceremony through a 20 mile route that took it through the neighborhood Ali grew up in.

There is a bit of kumbaya vibe here, as most involved with the funeral proclaim that the city came together as one for the funeral. It is worth mentioning that only four years later, the same Louisville police force killed Breonna Taylor during a no-knock raid, an act that was largely swept under the rug initially. One of the men who took still photographs at the funeral that are used here would die during the protests that followed.

There are a lot of good stories about Ali, some background about how the funeral came together and a quick summary of Ali’s life, particularly his years in Louisville. There are a lot of talking heads, but considering some of the stories that are coming out of them, it is forgivable. The co-operation of Ali’s surviving family is evident, although his most famous child – Laila – is conspicuous by her absence. That they would want the funeral to be meaningful and triumphant is understandable, but sadly, the same problems that have beset the nation in his formative years in Louisville are largely with us – in a different form, yes, but not completely gone. Not even the Greatest that ever was could solve those problems on his own.

REASONS TO SEE: Some of the anecdotes are truly wonderful.
REASONS TO AVOID: Tries a bit too hard to make the event more unifying than it turned out to be.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some boxing violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ali passed away on June 3, 2016. Normally, Muslim law requires bodies to be buried within 24 hours of death. An exception was made in Ali’s case due to his passing in Phoenix, and his wish to be buried in his hometown of Louisville and of course his enormous worldwide popularity gave dignitaries time to make arrangements to attend the funeral.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/7/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Am Ali
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Women

Chuck (2017)


Liev Schreiber gets ready to take on the role of Chuck Wepner.

(2017) Sports Biography (IFC) Liev Schreiber, Elisabeth Moss, Naomi Watts, Ron Perlman, Michael Rapaport, Jim Gaffigan, Pooch Hall, Jason Jones, Morgan Spector, Sadie Sink, Zina Wilde, Catherine Corcoran, Wass Stevens, Angela Marie Ray, Liz Celeste, Ivan Martin, Joe Starr, Jen Ponton, William Hill, Mark Borkowski, Marell Miniutti, Leslie Lyles, Megan Sikora. Directed by Phillippe Falardeau

 

America loves an underdog and perhaps there’s been no bigger underdog in U.S. boxing history than Chuck Wepner. A journeyman heavyweight in the 1970s based in Bayonne, New Jersey, he’d had a decent enough career, winning the Jersey State Heavyweight Championship but had never really fought any of the big dogs of the era – until 1975.

Wepner (Schreiber) has a certain amount of local fame as he is treated like he’d won the heavyweight championship of the world. Of course, admiration doesn’t put food on the table so he runs a liquor route to make ends meet. His wife Phyliss (Moss) endures the boxing in which he takes terrible beatings but Chuck tends to have a wandering eye – and the other body parts unfortunately wander as well. The marriage is most definitely sailing through rough waters and while Chuck is devoted to his daughter Kimberly (Sink) his ego tends to get in the way of making smart choices.

After Ali (Hall) wins the Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman, his manager Don King invites Wepner to fight for the championship against Ali, then just a little past his prime. The match is expected to be a joke but Wepner gives Ali everything he can handle, coming just 18 seconds away from going the distance until Ali, angered that Wepner had knocked him down, pummeled him into a technical knockout. Still, Wepner became a folk hero.

A young out-of-work actor named Sylvester Stallone (Spector) sees the fight and is inspired to write a character based on Wepner – Stallone names him Rocky Balboa. The rest is history and although Wepner has nothing to do with the movie itself, he feels a sense of accomplishment when the movie wins multiple Oscars as if he had been responsible. He starts billing himself as “The Real Rocky.”

But all the accolades and adulation get Chuck’s ego spiraling out of control and he spends the Disco Decade in debauchery, doing drugs, drinking heavily and partying with women. Having had enough, Phyliss leaves him for good and Chuck sinks into a deep depression fueled by drugs and alcohol. Standing by him is his estranged brother John (Rapaport), his best friend (Gaffigan), his longtime manager (Perlman) and a barmaid named Linda (Watts) who is unimpressed with Chuck’s fame. Will it be enough to get him back on the straight and narrow?

Because the stories are so similar, the first part of the film comes off as kind of a Rocky Lite which may or may not be what the filmmakers intended. Then, in a sense, it all goes off the rails as Wepner gets lost in the trappings of fame, 70s style – discos, tons of drugs, tons of sex. It turns into a cautionary tale at that point which is diametrically different to the underdog story that it began as.

One of the things that really caught my attention is that Falardeau accomplishes either digitally or by using film stock the look of era movies which helps keep you right in the 70s. The trappings of the time – the truly obnoxious hair, the boxy cars, the outlandish clothes and the pulse of disco – further set the tone.

Schreiber of late has gotten notoriety for playing the Hollywood fixer Ray Donovan on Showtime and I can’t help but notice that while both Donovan and Wepner are violent men, Donovan is clever and street smart while Wepner is easily swayed by praise. Wepner has an ego which makes some sense since he came from a background in which his ego along with his body took a pounding. When everybody loves you, it’s hard not to love yourself.

While there is some humor to the movie it falls flat in that regard a little more often than I would have liked. The humor is a bit heavy-handed and the movie would have benefited from a lighter tone overall. As for the story, some of you might be aware of Wepner’s history but most people won’t; still, the story is a bit predictable even though it is based on Wepner’s life. Hollywood has had lots of Wepners in its history.

As boxing movies go, this one isn’t going to make any grand changes to the genre but it doesn’t disgrace itself either. It’s entertaining enough and for those who are wary of the big summer blockbusters that are taking up most of the screens in the local multiplex, this makes a very entertaining counter option.

REASONS TO GO: The movie was shot to look like it was filmed in the 70s which enhances the sense of era.  Schreiber is appealing as Wepner in a Ray Donovan-esque way.
REASONS TO STAY: The filmmaker needed a lighter touch here. Overall the film is inoffensive but predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of profanity, plenty of drug use, some sexuality and nudity, a lot of boxing violence and a few bloody images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally titled The Bleeder in reference to Wepner’s boxing nickname “The Bayonne Bleeder.” Wepner claims the title changed due to it sounding like a horror film but it is also well-known that he detested the nickname.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ali
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Power Rangers