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Photo: ‘Citizen Ashe’

The Problem Sam Pollard’s Sports Docs Raises Its Head

 A truly good documentary has to try harder to be exceptional, and that’s where a film like ‘Citizen Ashe’ strikes me as disappointing. On paper, this is a fine film; it covers the life of famous Black tennis player Arthur Ashe, who grew up in the late days of the Jim Crow South, and who by the ‘70s would become one of the most famous athletes in the country. This new film, directed by Sam Pollard and Rex Miller, explores the circumstances of Ashe’s quiet relationship with the period’s civil rights movements, and how that relationship inspired his later outspoken association with HIV/AIDS awareness.

Pollard is a prolific Black documentarian, with his 2020 feature ‘MLK/FBI’ being his most notable, and Arthur Ashe’s story is undoubtedly an attractive subject for the filmmaker. To make this film, though, Pollard and Miller had to overcome a few key issues with the project — some of which, sadly, were not in their control. For one, they couldn’t interview Ashe, on account of his untimely death in 1993 from an AIDS-related illness; another problem is that Ashe was reserved, being selective with interviews. As a result of this, Pollard and Miller make the controversial choice of having  ‘Citizen Ashe’ not cover, strangely enough,  Ashe himself a good portion of the time.

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No Such Thing as Apolitical Sports

‘Citizen Ashe’ works best as a snapshot of American politics in the late ‘60s to the early ‘70s We’re talking about the most violent period of the civil rights movement. In the span of three months in 1968, we saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, and it seemed like things were about to get even worse. Not so much in the middle of all this as hidden in plain sight was Arthur Ashe, who was out of his college years and now entering the big time. This early part of the film, covering Ashe’s early life at what feels like a mile a minute, is the closest we come to knowing Ashe the man, as opposed to Ashe the athlete. His reluctance to associate himself with the burgeoning civil rights movements in the ‘60s boiled down to the fact that he was raised to keep his head down, for the sake of his own safety. As such, Ashe was “apolitical” during his sports career.

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As it turns out, you can’t keep this sort of thing up forever. In contrast with Ashe, Muhammad Ali’s openly political takes during his career, including his refusal to fight in Vietnam, revealed to be a man who risked his career and his life to express what he thought was righteous. Ali’s fearlessness would clearly come to haunt Ashe, who had (unlike Ali) volunteered for ROTC, and who would remain known as another highly skilled athlete. For better or worse, though, Ashe was given a second chance to stand for a good cause, and in 1988, he was diagnosed as HIV-positive; the diagnosis was practically a death sentence. He contracted HIV via blood transfusion, back in the early days of the epidemic when such a method of spreading was common. During this time, it was common for people afflicted with HIV/AIDS to wait before coming out publicly, or to never come out with it at all; Queen frontman Freddie Mercury announced his diagnosis literally the day before his death, and science fiction author Isaac Asimov had his family keep his condition secret until years after his death. It says something about Ashe that he announced his condition in 1989, making no secret of it; it’s a shame the film focuses so little on this final period of Ashe’s life.

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‘Citizen Ashe’ – Needed More Time in the Oven

Clocking in at 94 minutes doesn’t do ‘Citizen Ashe’ any favors; we get a quick rundown of Ashe’s life and career, but we’re granted very little insight into what it would’ve been like in his shoes. You could pretty feasibly add an extra half-hour to the runtime and we would have gotten far more meat on the film’s bones, delving into the life of a Black athlete at a time when race relations in the US were at a crossroads. I don’t feel like I knew any more about Ashe after seeing ‘Citizen Ashe’ than I did going into it, and I know very little about him to start, the most we get is archival footage. The problem with ‘Citizen Ashe’ is the same problem that plagues a lot of documentaries — watching one feels like you’re reading the subject’s Wikipedia article with a slideshow playing alongside it. We need more creatively conceived documentaries now than ever; we need more of the likes of Errol Morris’sThe Thin Blue Line’, Banksy’sExit Through the Gift Shop’, and even Werner Herzog’sGrizzly Man’ — documentaries that leave an impression on the viewer. People as integral to understanding ourselves and our history as Arthur Ashe deserve better movies about them.

CAST: Johnnie Ashe, Beth Barnes, Loretta Burnette

CREW: Directors: Sam Pollard, Rex Miller, Editors: R. A. Fedde, Lewis Rapkin, Federico Rosenzvit, Ben Sozanski, Music: Jongnic Bontemps

By Brian Collins

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