An AFI Tennis Double: ‘King Richard’ ⭐︎⭐︎ and ‘Citizen Ashe’ ⭐︎⭐︎⭐︎⭐︎

Tennis fans were treated to an AFI Fest tennis double: the feature film “King Richard and the documentary “Citizen Ashe.” While “King Richard” has the ever-popular and seemingly everywhere lately Will Smith behind it and as the star, “Citizen Ashe” has Emmy Award-winning directors Rex Miller and Sam Pollard and a man of sterling character to focus on. 

King Richard ⭐︎⭐︎

When waiting for the king, I guess one can’t expect punctuality. The AFI screening started nearly an hour late with Will Smith and Venus and Serena Williams getting out in front of the seated audience, but what followed was oddly androcentric. ‘King Richard’ is about the father of Venus and Serena Williams more than it is about the two tennis-playing daughters who made him famous. Even the clashes with the male coaches get more attention than the Williams’ sisters or their mother.

In Zach Baylin’s script, Richard Williams (Will Smith) is presented as a man with a plan and the plan focuses on his two daughters: Venus Williams (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton). His wife Oracene “Brandy” Price (Aunjanue Ellis) works two shifts while Richard works a night shift as a security guard. We see him at work. We don’t see her. He’s shown early on being criticized by their neighbor across the street for the hard schedule he puts on his five daughters. His three stepdaughters, Tunde (Mikayla LaShae Bartholomew), Isha (Danielle Lawson) and Lyndrea (Layla Crawford), are included but Richard’s main hustle, as he pushes for investors, is the two youngest.

At work, he studies tennis through videos and magazines. He’s opposed, not only by the White establishment and the nosy neighbor across the street, but also by the local toughs, including one who tries to pick up his oldest stepdaughter. Richard gets beat up and that threat continues until Venus’ winning ways gives the locals pride.

Eventually, Richard finds a man, Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn), to coach Venus for free and films in order that the youngest, Serena, can also benefit while his wife drills her.  His obstinate ways doesn’t stop when he gets a mobile home and a condo for his whole family under Florida coach Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal).

While one might expect that the focus be on Smith’s Richard due to the title of the film, one wishes that our sense of both who Ellis’ Brandy was and how Sidney’s Venus and Singleton’s Serena developed under the two. Under director Reinaldo Marcus Green’s direction, both Sidney and Singleton are dutiful daughters, but we don’t see the growing determination that would make them the world’s best. Likewise, it comes as a blast of arctic air when we learn, during an argument between Richard and Brandy, that Richard had other kids. Up until that point, it seemed as if Zach Baylin’s script was building Richard as the proud parent of the century, the best dad one could wish for.

After the film, I then learned that Richard Williams had been married three times. Before he married Price, he had five kids (three sons and two daughters) with his first wife, Betty. The audience never sees these children. When Williams married Price, the oldest of the five would have only likely been about 15. In essence, this film gives an incomplete portrait of a man, a man who is only famous because of two of his children.

One thing you’ll learn about tennis from “King Richard” is open stance, something that Smith’s Richard repeats throughout the film. Seeing the kind of drilling that the professional coaches implemented is also interesting. Yet, we never explore the strategies that Venus and Serena learned from their coaches, including Rick Macci. We never see how in their minds they are forming and breaking from both their father and their coaches. We have to be told that their mother is working two shifts, but we don’t see her at work. 

For a film that was made because of two women who fought their way to international prominence on the tennis courts, guided by their father, there is very little about women and more about the man and men behind them. 

Citizen Ashe ⭐︎⭐︎⭐︎⭐︎

While people going into the documentary “Citizen Ashe” might know the outcome of a specific Wimbledon match, what  makes it interesting is that strategy is discussed. “Citizen Ashe” is a respectful, contemplative look at the man, Arthur Ashe (July 10, 1943 – February 6, 1993), who broke the color barrier in US tennis and extended his influence to the international stage as he peacefully protested against apartheid in South Africa. And it also provides a prime example of what White privilege looks like.

Determined to be the “Jackie Robinson of tennis,” he was the first African American to play in the Maryland boys’ championships in 1958. Raised by his widower father, Arthur Ashe Sr., he has a younger brother, Johnnie, who you’ll see in this documentary.  His father was the caretaker of the largest Blacks-only public playground in Richmond, (18-acre Brookfield Park), that included four tennis courts. The family lived on the grounds in the caretaker’s cottage. Ashe began playing tennis at seven. 

Ashe came to the attention of Robert Walter Johnson, the man who coached Althea Gibson (August 25, 1927 – September 28, 2003). Gibson  played at Wimbledon in the late 1950s, winning in 1957 and 1958 in singles and in 1956, 1957 and 1958 in doubles. She was the first African American to win a Grand Slam title and to win Wimbledon and what became the US Open. Johnson emphasized sportsmanship, etiquette and composure and that would characterize Ashe when he hit the national and international stage. It was a friend of Johnson’s, Richard Hudlin of St. Louis, who offered Ashe a place to stay so that Ashe could play in unsegregated competitions as a senior enrolled in Sumner High School and have access to indoor courts. 

His achievements as the first African American to win the National Junior Indoor tennis championship, allowed Ashe to follow his Jackie Robinson dream to the West Coast. 

Jackie Robinson was raised in Pasadena and after attending Pasadena Junior College (now Pasadena City College), Robinson entered UCLA where he was UCLA’s first athlete to win varsity letters in four sports: baseball, basketball, football and track. 

Ashe went to the University of California, Los Angeles on scholarship, joining Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity. In 1965, he won the individual NCAA championship and contributed to UCLA’s NCAA tennis championship win. He graduated in 1966 with a degree in business administration. (The UCLA healthcare center, Arthur Ashe Student Health and Wellness Center, is named for him.)

The documentary includes archival photographs and video of Ashe, as well as recordings of his voice in interviews. His wife, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe,  and younger brother, Johnnie Ashe, recall the sacrifices made. Johnnie made sure that his older brother, who joined the US Army in 1966 and was assigned to West Point, never had to serve in Vietnam, because Johnnie opted to do two tours. By the time Ashe had married in 1977, he had won Wimbledon, in a match against Jimmy Connors, marking the first time he had beaten Connors (July 1975) and begun his activism against apartheid in South Africa.

Before his protests against South Africa, some people in the Black community had been disappointed with his decision not to speak up against racism. Harry Edwards, professor emeritus of sociology at UC Berkeley, is one of the talking heads. Edwards established the Olympic Project for Human Rights (est. 1967), an organization that included Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the two both were San José State University (California) athletes. Smith and Carlos made the controversial Black Power Salute at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. 

The UCLA and West Coast connection are important, but not implicitly stated in the documentary and while the timing is in the same decade (1960s), Ashe had left UCLA before the momentum had grown.  Then called Lewis Alcindor, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was also at UCLA in 1966, on a basketball scholarship. Jabbar remained at UCLA until 1969, by which time he had had converted to Sunni Islam and adopted the Arabic name. 

It’s also worth recalling when you hear that to some Ashe was considered an “Uncle Tom” that the same was said by some, most pointedly Malcolm X, about Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Malcolm X said:

Today Martin Luther King is just a 20th century or modern Uncle Tom, or a religious Uncle Tom, who is doing the same thing today, to keep Negroes defenseless in the face of an attack, that Uncle Tom did on the plantation to keep those Negroes defenseless in the face of the attacks of the Klan in that day.

Yet while Ashe voices some regrets, he also noted, “You grow up Black in the American South, you have no control.”  By the sixties, Ashe found, “You have Black ideologues trying to tell me what to do. All the time, I’m saying to myself, ‘Hey, when do I get to decide what I want to do?’” In the arena of tennis, he wasn’t one of many Black athletes as with track of boxing. 

What the documentary does well is illustrate that there is more than one way to protest against racism. The film includes commentary from Billie Jean King and John McEnroe, but not of Jimmy Connors. McEnroe, like Connors, sometimes behaved as raging White men on the tennis courts. The documentary asserts such behavior would have been interpreted differently, if it had been a Black man. I don’t doubt the truth of that. 

In a time when so much of what we see goes against non-violent or peaceful protest practices and includes the destruction or damaging of property, Miller and Pollard’s intelligent and thoughtful “Citizen Ashe” comes as a welcome reminder of what things can be accomplished without violence. In a time when women are becoming empowered and Serena Williams is being compared or conflated into Wonder Woman in a commercial, “King Richard” almost relegates Venus and Serena to the role of the titular king’s subjects instead of one of the subjects of the film. 

“Citizen Ashe” made its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival (3 September 2021), streamed at part of AFI FEST and will be given a limited release by Magnolia Pictures on 3 December 2021. 

“King Richard” had its world premiere at the 48th Telluride Film Festival (2 September 2021) and was the closing film for AFI Fest (14 November 2021). It will be released theatrically on 19 November 2021 and streaming on HBO Max the same day.



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