Featuring in this year’s Journey category at London Film Festival, Citizen Ashe proves to be quite the adventure, and even more of an educational experience. For those who were not previously aware of the tennis star and activist’s life, Rex Miller and Sam Pollard’s latest documentary is here to tell and show all, taking your hand and guiding you through the key moments in Arthur Ashe’s illustrious life, highlighting not only his key achievements in the sporting field, but also his ground-breaking influence off the court and the loving people who devotedly stood by him.
The film is effectively broken into two parts; firstly exploring Ashe’s early years growing up in the segregated south of Richmond, Virginia, before venturing into the more vocal latter years of his career, life and activism. The subject grew up on a playground with four tennis courts on his front porch, thus sewing the seeds for his future love of the game. His career was destined not to be quite so simple due to the colour of his skin and the societal position of ethnic minorities in America during the 1960s, but the sportsman was raised with a Jackie Robinson-esque attitude, not lashing back at those who wished to bring him down and instead letting his racket do the talking.
It is here that the documentary makes it clear that underneath the layers, this is not just a story about race, but also about the development of a sporting icon during a period of intense political and social unrest. The primary argument against Ashe’s more reticent approach was that he wasn’t aggressive enough in his fight for the racial inequality, often being coined an ‘”Uncle Tom”, but on the contrary, his actions proved to be the vital counterweight on the scales that balanced fiercely outspoken figures and silent achievers. According to US Tennis legend John McEnroe in the second half of the feature, it was this temperament, bestowed upon him while on the Davis Cup team, that helped him to curb his own boisterous attitude and become a more serious professional.
Matching Ashe’s relaxed nature proves to be a slight hiccup when attempting to deliver a striking blow in the punchiness of the narrative, but it is the unquestionable reality of the subject matter that carries the 94-minute experience decisively through to fruition. His playing style captivated audiences and the presentation of Miller and Pollard’s piece does very much the same, encapsulating the same reserved yet polished presentation so frequently embodied by Ashe during his playing days.
Lovely video footage builds up the majority of the visual element of this documentary, accompanied by powerful interviews and insights from fellow players, politicians, relatives, as well as modern re-enactments of Ashe’s childhood. All of this builds the simple biographic story into an inspiring tale that offers a very different perspective to the racial inequality campaigns of the 1960s and 1970s, something that is sure to intrigue the masses.
Citizen Ashe does not have a UK release date yet.
Read more reviews and interviews from our London Film Festival 2021 coverage here.
For further information about the festival visit the official BFI website here.