Written by Max Thornton.
“I never knew.” In a voice soft with wonder and respect, director Rex Miller expresses the sentiment with which he hopes audiences will respond to his biopic about Althea Gibson. “I never knew.”
Miller is likely to get his wish. Unless you’re a tennis buff, or (like me) you live around the corner from a statue of Althea, you may not ever have heard of her. The erroneous factoid still circulates that Arthur Ashe was the first African American to win a Grand Slam, erasing Althea’s legacy.[caption id="attachment_18478" align="aligncenter" width="500"] Statue of Althea Gibson in Branch Brook Park, Newark, NJ. Image via Wikipedia.[/caption]
Tennis remains nearly the only sport I have voluntarily watched, but you don’t have to be any kind of sports watcher to be compelled and moved by Althea’s story. It is not (though Althea herself might have wished it to be so) merely a story of athletic excellence, but a tale of race, class, and gender, of how these factors are inextricable in the United States: a story of intersectionality.
The details of Gibson’s career – winning the French Open in 1956, with ten more Grand Slam titles to follow in the next two years – are only a Wikipedia search away. It’s both Althea’s complexities as a person and the broader social context of her life that the film portrays with grace and nuance.
As an African American woman, born in South Carolina in the 1920s, raised in Harlem, Althea might not have been expected to play tennis, of all sports. Then as now, tennis was the sport of the genteel, and it seems to have been very much the hobby of the aspirational classes. Althea began playing paddle tennis as part of the Police Athletic League, and was mentored by Black doctors who were also tennis enthusiasts.
At the time, the structures of the sport tended to exclude those who lacked an independent income, so Althea’s success was as much a matter of transcending economic and class barriers as race barriers (not, of course, that these have ever been fully separable in United States history). And yet, despite being hailed as the Jackie Robinson of tennis, she was extremely reluctant to be a civil rights figure. Althea Gibson was not particularly interested in politics; she was interested in playing excellent tennis.[caption id="attachment_18479" align="aligncenter" width="500"] Winning the hell out of Wimbledon, like a boss.[/caption]
As a Black woman, of course, her life was inherently, unavoidably political. The Athena Film Festival screening of the film featured a discussion with the director, and the politics of Black womanhood were an integral part of this discussion. For much of the film, interviewees describe Althea’s toughness, her steely determination and hard edges born of a childhood playing hooky in the streets of Harlem; yet in all of the footage of Althea herself, she appears very poised, dignified, and ladylike. Black women in America are subject to stereotyping and exclusion from all sides, and have used their double and triple consciousness to make enormously important contributions to the pursuit of justice. Even a Black woman like Althea, who rejects the burden of explicitly fighting for racial and gender justice, carries within her the multiple consciousness necessary to survive in America.
A second aspect of discussion was the film’s silence regarding rumors around Althea’s sexuality. Miller explained that he consciously chose to exclude all mention of the rumors, because with so little information available (Gibson leaves, it seems, no relatives who might have been able to confirm or deny), he felt he would have been able to do little more than pander to sensationalism. Whether this was the appropriate decision or not is an open question. It is certain that Althea was married to a husband with whom she seems to have been very much in love, but it is not hard to read subtext into her close friendship with British tennis star Angela Buxton. Given that rumors did exist in Althea’s lifetime, their omission does leave a lacuna; and yet, given the meticulousness of the rest of the film and the dearth of certainty regarding Gibson’s sexuality, it is hard to fault Miller for shying away from such speculative territory.
Impoverished and forgotten, Althea Gibson planned to take her own life in the early 1990s. Her friend and tennis partner Angela Buxton galvanized the tennis world to provide financial support, and Althea lived another decade. Hopefully, this fine film will help to ensure that her legacy survives long into the future.