"Citizen Ashe": film biography of tennis star Arthur Ashe reminds us of many old controversies that really have never gone away

On Saturday, November 11, 2017, I drove from Falls Church, VA, where I had moved into a highrise condo a few weeks before after downsizing from an inherited house, to Richmond, on the fall’s first cold windy day, and drove down Monument Blvd and took pictures of the statues. Already, following Charlottesville, there was talk that they would eventually come down (as started in 2020 and is now done). But the one statue remaining is a positive one, that of black tennis star Arthur Ashe (1943-1993), born the same year I was.

Above: trailer, Citizen Ashe

I posted the pictures on a site I no longer have (then called Bill’s Media Reviews) and even then I wondered, am I going to get wrath over that? Would some on the radical Left complain that gratuitous postings of the confederate statues by a citizen on his own website was adding to “oppression” by continuing to validate the structural racism of the past. Critical race theory was already coming into vogue. In a way, group activism like this could make sense for members of this class if they felt their lives were in danger from background lingering hatred (Floyd hadn’t happened yet). That didn’t happen, but I always thought that the last statue on the western end of the street, of Arthur Ashe, provided some salvation. Rather than tear down existing statues, why not simply commission more of prominent African Americans and build them around Richmond and other southern cities?

Caption above: "The Making of Citizen Ashe" qa

Sunday night, June 26, 2022, CNN Films aired the documentary “Citizen Ashe”, directed by Rex Miller and Sam Pollard, with a story consultant T.J. Volgare (and the true story tends to have cycles of want-get-pay). The film had a brief theatrical release from Magnolia/Magnet in the summer of 2021.

Ashe’s biography  hits on many hot button issues.  He had to deal with exclusion from many tennis courts early in his life, until the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s started making progress.  He had to deal with the Vietnam era draft (which is something today’s young male YouTube stars in the US don’t have to), so he enlisted in 1966 and appears to have gotten a direct commission (a possibility that I explored in 1968 with my MA Master’s Degree;  that didn't happen, but one manager I worked for at NBC in the 1970s had earned one).  He would wind up stationed at West Point and creating a little controversy.

More pointed, however, was that his brother volunteered for a second year of duty in Vietnam so that he (Arthur) didn’t have to face a tour that posed extra risk of combat.  Nevertheless, he had a narrow miss on a USO visit to Vietnam.  During the Vietnam war, the Army did apply “sole surviving son” rules for families to prevent multiple male casualties as had been unavoidable in World War II (and maybe Korea?)

The other big story circle in the movie starts with Ashe's surprising heart attack at age 36, which seemed result from a hereditary condition reportedly more common in blacks.  His doctor didn’t let him go home, and he was rushed into coronary bypass surgery in 1979 (the same thing happened in 2000 to talk show host David Letterman – don’t go to the doctor!)  The film shows him in bed with a cloth patch over the center of his chest, cracked open like a lobster.  No more an acceptable beauty model.  He would get a second surgery in 1983, and apparently receive blood tainted with HIV, which could not yet be detected in blood donations as the AIDS epidemic was exploding (the HTLV-III virus was officially discovered in the spring of 1984, and a test was available almost immediately).  He would be diagnosed with toxoplasmosis, a sign of AIDS, and then pneumocystis pneumonia, of which he would pass away in February 1993.   The blood donation issue early in the AIDS epidemic provided fodder which the right wing, especially in Texas with a failed attempt in 1983 to bolster the state’s sodomy law, could use to try to repress male homosexuality altogether.  That history from the more distant past seems a little more dangerous given what has been said about the recent SCOTUS opinion. One has to connect the dots all the time. On the other hand , only recently have gay men (otherwise HIV- ) been accepted as blood donors.

As for the heart disease, my own mother had a triple bypass in May 1999 at age 85. The doctors had wanted to do an angioplasty and stent but said her coronary arteries were too brittle. At the time, I had not been aware that bypass surgery could be done that late in life. She would live eleven years (the expected gain was seven years), in good quality until about 2008; she would pass away at the end of 2010 after 18 months of rather constant caregiving. Ashe has had become active in the American Heart Association, as reported in the film. That non-profit was among those Mother donated to, and the donations continue today (although they are not a trust beneficiary). I get contacts (even by phone) sometimes from some non-profits asking if I will work with them more publicly, and I have not since I work online on my own. That’s really a big deal (there is a book The Logic of Collective Action, by Mancur Olson, from the 60s which I should get on Kindle and take up soon)). This film, ironically, leads me all the way to pondering my own problem with that.

(Posted: Monday, June 27, 2022 at 11:30 AM EDT by John W. Boushka)