MIFF 22: Citizen Ashe Has Smarts, Lacks Power

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Historically, tennis has been a gentleman’s game, and there’s arguably no player who better personifies this philosophy than Arthur Ashe. Embodying this same spirit is a feature-length documentary about the late athlete and activist which, while fascinating and well-told, doesn’t quite do its subject justice.

Born in the former capital of the Confederacy and raised in the shadow of segregation, Ashe overcame socio-economic disadvantage to achieve a bold ambition he set himself in his youth: doing for tennis what Jackie Robinson did for baseball. On the court, he devoured opponents with an icy elegance and disarming modesty; off it, he was a polite yet passionate advocate for civil rights the world over. His relentlessness continued well into retirement, using his name and voice in the fight against HIV/AIDS – a disease which he himself contracted, with fatal consequences.

It’s quite fitting that Citizen Ashe (2021) should be screening as part of this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival. Our city is, of course, home to the Australian Open, the Asia-Pacific’s premier tennis tournament; but it’s also the place where Ashe obtained his last ever Grand Slam title, winning the Men’s Doubles competition with Aussie player Tony Roche in January 1977. Additionally, its showing continues the Festival’s affinity with politically-minded sports documentaries, with previous examples including The Witches of the Orient (2021) and The Australian Dream (2019). That’s right – this is no mere tennis story.

Ashe’s sporting achievements have since been overshadowed by the likes of the Williams sisters and Roger Federer, so it’s not surprising that directors Rex Miller and Sam Pollard have opted for a greater focus on the politics and social issues that shaped the athlete’s mindset. Insights are provided by the likes of Johnnie Ashe, who discusses his older brother’s upbringing in Montgomery, Alabama and his military service; and Harry Edwards, a former Black Panther who reflects on the tennis star’s passive approach to racism.

What’s most intriguing, and impressive, about Citizen Ashe is how Miller and Pollard tell their story. Fresh interviews with Edwards, Johnnie Ashe and others are woven together with archival video, and audio, of its subject appearing on current affairs programs and chat shows, all of which is expertly edited – to the point where the film negates the need for a dedicated narrator. At times, it’s almost as though Arthur Ashe is speaking directly to the viewer, his soundbites seemingly uttered with this very documentary in mind. And the ingenuity of the screenplay doesn’t end there.

Arthur Ashe’s younger brother, Johnnie is one of the talking heads in Citizen Ashe

Every good tale needs an adversary, and Ashe has one in Jimmy Connors. Having emerged on the tennis scene just as Ashe was reaching his peak, Connors appears to be everything that his counterpart isn’t, a man who’s strong, brash and loud – he’s widely recognised as one of the first “grunters” in the sport. Connors’ game-changing techniques contrast with the more traditional, tactical approach of his rival, making him the Connors is the James Hunt to Ashe’s Niki Lauda, or the John McEnroe to the other’s Bjorn Borg. So intriguing is this rivalry that it could be a fascinating movie or mini-series on its own.

The same could be said for the rest of the documentary, for that matter. Every aspect of Ashe’s extraordinary life – whether it be his childhood, his studies in California, his military service, his visit to Apartheid-era South Africa, his coaching of the American Davis Cup team, his relationship with John McEnroe, his marriage to Jeanne Moutoussamy, or his AIDS diagnosis – is worthy of the feature-length treatment. But instead, Citizen Ashe condenses it all into a 95-minute runtime. While this is a commendable feat, the film needs at least another half-hour to thoroughly study its namesake, and reflect upon his legacy.

As a result of its abbreviated duration, the tone of Citizen Ashe is somewhat remote. His many achievements and milestones are made to feel more like footnotes, never reaching the cathartic highs of other documentaries about the African-American experience, such as Summer of Soul (2021). And in being so emotionally distant, the picture never becomes the profound, moving tale that it ought to be, nor does the viewer feel compelled to emulate its central figure and become a better person – as was the case in The Australian Dream.

Much like the man himself, Citizen Ashe refrains from melodrama, telling its narrative with poise and intelligence. The documentary falters as a tribute to the professional athlete, for it is overly clinical in its delivery, though it does serve some purpose as a neat introduction to those who are unfamiliar with all that Arthur Ashe accomplished in his remarkable, all-too-short life.

Citizen Ashe is streaming on MIFF Play until Sunday, August 28.

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