- Interview by
- Ed Rampell
Right now a vanguard of black documentarians is spearheading a cinematic reimagining and retelling of the African American experience. These filmmakers include Raoul Peck, Stanley Nelson, Ava DuVernay, and Spike Lee. At the forefront of this nonfiction motion picture movement is Sam Pollard, who co-won two Emmys for 2006’s Lee-directed When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts and was Academy Award–nominated along with Lee for 1997’s 4 Little Girls.
Pollard, who also received an Emmy for 2009’s By the People: The Election of Barack Obama, began his prolific producing and directing career making two episodes of the prestigious PBS civil rights series, Eyes on the Prize. The Harlem-raised talent’s outstanding filmography also includes Sammy Davis Jr: I’ve Gotta Be Me, ACORN and the Firestorm, and 2020’s MLK/FBI, a chilling expose of J. Edgar Hoover’s relentless surveillance of and vendetta against Dr Martin Luther King Jr.
Now Pollard is back with Citizen Ashe. Codirected with Rex Miller, this ninety-four-minute nonfiction biopic chronicles athlete-activist Arthur Ashe, who broke ethnic boundaries in the so-called “sport of kings” and fought for social justice off the tennis court.
What do you make of the fact that King Richard and Citizen Ashe, a feature and documentary about African American tennis greats, are being released around the same time?
Well, kismet, man, kismet. Listen, you never know. We had no idea when the King Richard film was going to come out. But these two worlds collided. It was fantastic to be at Telluride and to know at one screen in the city they were showing Citizen Ashe and at another screen in the city they were showing King Richard. That’s a twofer you can’t disregard. That was big. For me, it was fantastic.
For the benefit of younger readers especially, who was Arthur Ashe?
I grew up in the ’60s, so I was very aware of Arthur Ashe on the tennis court. He was like the Jackie Robinson of tennis. He integrated the white tennis world. He was an amazing player. He went to UCLA on a scholarship, and he was a member of the Davis Cup team. In 1968, he won the first US Open. He was the only male African American to win the US Open, the Australian Open, and Wimbledon. No one’s broken that record yet. That’s who he was.
What I didn’t know until I got involved with the film with my codirector Rex Miller was that Arthur Ashe was also very active off the court. He was a very important man, who somehow got swept under the rug because he wasn’t like Muhammad Ali. He grew up in the turbulent ’60s, but he wasn’t vocal, loud, and outspoken like Ali. He wasn’t aggressive like Jim Brown, Bill Russell, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But in his own way, he was just as important an activist as they were.
Of course, top-tier tennis at the time had this veneer and was considered to be a gentlemanly sport for the thinking man.
That’s exactly right.
Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe — white contemporaries of Ashe — were able to get away with breaking the rules with their on-court antics and conduct. But why was Ashe held to a different standard?
Because this is America, man! Think about it. Think about Branch Rickey saying to Jackie Robinson, “I want to bring you, you young Negro baseball player from the Negro Leagues into Major League Baseball — but when you’ve got people taunting you or yelling at you or calling you racial epithets, you can’t react. You’ve gotta take it. You’ve gotta take it. Because if you do react, you’ll basically be saying, ‘I can be just as ugly as you.’”
He was saying you’ve got to be above that. So, that’s the world Arthur Ashe grew up in, and that’s the world I grew up in as an African American — that here we are in America, you should become part of the American melting pot, but don’t make waves, don’t make waves. You know, if you make waves, if you upset the applecart, you can be thrown out of school or off the baseball team or out of the American Tennis Association.
So, Ashe understood that he had to face reality — he felt on the one hand that he could admire McEnroe or Jimmy Connors, but he also knew if he acted like McEnroe, he would face major consequences.
Do you feel that Serena and Venus Williams were beneficiaries of both Ashe’s groundbreaking career but also of Connors and McEnroe, because now they are able to get away with some of the behavior that Ashe would presumably have been completely vilified for back in the day?
I don’t know, I’m not sure. The Williams sisters are part of the legacy of Arthur Ashe. I’m not sure about McEnroe and Connors, quite honestly. The Williams sisters and any African American player — football, soccer, golf — they all stand on the shoulders of Arthur Ashe.
Why do you call your documentary Citizen Ashe?
He was a citizen not only of the tennis court but of the world.
Tell us about Arthur Ashe vis-à-vis South Africa and apartheid.
He felt he wanted to go there as a tennis player and, first of all, integrate the tennis tournaments there. He wanted to challenge the fact that they were segregated. But the thing that hits me about that particular stand is that he wanted to go to a South Africa that wasn’t welcoming or inviting. He was also dealing with the fact that, from the side of the black community, there were people on both sides of the ocean, in America and South Africa, who thought it was a mistake for a black man to even go to South Africa to play tennis.
This again is the man who is bucking the orthodoxy, who is pushing back at that time. He didn’t say, “I’m not going because of apartheid.” He wanted to go, he wanted to see what was happening. He caused some pushback. He went to a press conference in Johannesburg; there were black people there who thought he should go home. But he was a man of his convictions, so he stood up and spoke out. He wanted to always bring people to the table, black people and white people. He also wanted to meet Nelson Mandela, then imprisoned at Robben Island. But they met later when Mandela came to America.
How did Ashe contract AIDS?
He contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion. He had a series of heart attacks, and it was one of those situations where after he had one, he needed blood. But he was given blood that was tainted, and that’s how he became HIV-positive.
Then, like when he was a tennis player, he started an organization that would have young people who were HIV-positive who could talk about the issue, about how they felt. This guy was proactive — he was the man who spoke out.
What other causes did Ashe support?
The struggle that Haiti was having. He was at a rally about Haiti and was arrested.
At the very end of the film, Barack Obama says there were two athletes who influenced him. And this shows you the dichotomy — Muhammad Ali, the firebrand, and Arthur Ashe, the quiet, sturdy warrior.
A lot of your documentaries are about black trendsetters, such as Sammy Davis Jr, August Wilson, Marvin Gaye, Zora Neale Hurston, and MLK. What does Ashe have in common with them?
What they all have in common is the perspective of saying we have something that can hopefully make a difference in our community. The ten plays that August Wilson created were about the black community. You look at Sammy Davis, the importance of what it meant for him to be an entertainer, and the vitality he had and the challenges he faced in a segregated society in the ’50s and ’60s. You look at Dr King, who basically evolved from a preacher in Montgomery, Alabama, to become a world leader. Not just a leader for black people, but a world leader.
So, that’s what’s important about all these people — they had something to give. And they were tenacious, and they wanted to make sure they spoke out.
And you have a lot to give, too. What about your life inspired you to go down the path you’ve taken?
Quite simply, growing up in Harlem in the ’60s and understanding as I became a documentarian — first as an editor, then as a director/producer — that the stories of my community and the people in my community were important and needed to be told. Which I learned being at the feet of the late St. Clair Bourne, a wonderful documentary filmmaker.
I’m wondering if you and other African American documentarians, such as Stanley Nelson, who also grew up in Harlem when you did; Spike Lee, who you were co-Oscar-nominated with, who does features and documentaries, as does Ava DuVernay – do you have any contact with each other, as any sort of a loose movement, or are you just working on your individual fronts?
We all know each other and respect each other’s work. I just recently called Stanley and told him how much I loved his Attica documentary. We’re all connected, and we all want to do the same thing: speak truth to power.