American Masters: Althea (DVD Review)28 Dec, 2015 By: Mike Clark
Not too much grass would have grown before I looked at Rex Miller’s PBS Althea Gibson doc under any circumstances, but once Serena Williams rated a glam Sports Illustrated cover as Sportsperson of the Year a couple weeks ago, her honor seemed to scream in neon that the time for some Gibson-oriented viewing time was now. The other immediate impetus was my blown-away reaction to Liz Garbus’s killer Nina Simone documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? — another alternately triumphant and sad tale of an African-American child of the South who had to deal with a lot of personal/professional bumps up North.
Gibson’s sharecropper father didn’t waste a whole lot of time getting out of South Carolina once his crops failed, but when he got to Harlem, his regrets over his child not being a boy hadn’t changed. On a rooftop, the senior Gibson taught daughter Althea how to box, and there’s an anecdote here about how slugs to the face were part of the process. Gibson could also shoot pool, eventually play pro golf and even sing — but, of course, she will always be remembered as the first African-American to win Wimbledon (boom-boom in 1957-58 after a long apprenticeship) and the U.S. Nationals, just to give you the headlines. She was tall and thin, which was beneficial, and had superb form on the court.
Yet Gibson went into eclipse in fairly rapid fashion for a lot of reasons. She seems polite and not unfriendly in the interviews Miller has unearthed, but she was shy and played it close to the vest, which didn’t necessarily make her good copy. Unlike Jackie Robinson and later Muhammad Ali, she didn’t care to be a civil rights activist, which eliminated another persona. What’s more, most tennis players of the era had a tough go of it financially regardless of sex or race, getting barely enough to live on from their financial angels despite their stardom — though the men at least had the remnants of a boys-network to sustain them, relatively speaking. She also got off to a late start in schooling (though eventually completed college) and even a late start in her career. As the first African-American to play Forest Hills — this all the way back in 1950 — she was just putting the final touches on an almost inevitable win over the reigning female Wimbledon champ when a storm hit with such force that it toppled one of the stadium’s eagle statues. When play resumed the next day, Gibson had nothing.
Though a street kid at heart, she was mentored by a black middle-class of tennis benefactors who taught her about silverware etiquette — though she was never a natural fit (at least at first) with the older mentors who noted, more than anything for her own good, that maybe she ought to stay out of poolrooms. And yet, here she eventually is in a clip from “The Ed Sullivan Show” singing and looking indisputably elegant — a recording artist for Dot Records and certainly a label alternative to Pat Boone. This was at a time when Gibson was trying to diversify a portfolio that even came to include an appearance (as a slave) in John Ford’s Civil War drama The Horse Soldiers, with John Wayne and William Holden. It seems that with all these dimensions — she also took to golf in quick enough fashion to join the LPGA — there would have been some way for her to avoid poverty, but it was a different era and a different set of circumstances.
I was surprised by the goodly amount of archival footage that exists, and Miller is so deft at mixing film and stills that one will possibly get the impression that more first-hand film exists than really does. Without engaging in spoilers, it’s not saying too much to note that the story ended happily or at least acceptably when it really looked as if it wouldn’t. The wealth of interviewed friends, associates, historians or those benefiting from Gibson’s legacy don’t include either of the Williams sisters (maybe Miller tried), but Arthur Ashe’s widow does appear to give credit where it’s due — as does Billie Jean King (per usual a good person to have on your side). I see that Emma Stone and Steve Carell are prepping a new movie (one of competing projects) about the King-Bobby Riggs match from 1973. That should be something to see — though presumably it won’t have, like the old Holly Hunter-Ron Silver telepic of the saga — Fred Willard rather, uh, miscast as Howard Cosell.