In Rex Miller’s AFI DOCS 2015 documentary ALTHEA, the filmmaker delves into the fascinating life of Althea Gibson, the first African-American athlete to cross the racial barriers of an elite sport defined by its tradition of white clothes and white people. We spoke to Miller about Gibson, one of the greatest tennis players who ever lived, and also about the genesis of the film.
What led you to documentary filmmaking?
I am a long-time photojournalist, specializing in long-form documentary projects. In essence, I am a visual storyteller, so filmmaking was a logical progression from photojournalism.
Which documentarian has been the most influential to you?
I’m a big fan of James Longley and his sumptuous visual style.
How did you first learn about the Gibson?
I began searching for Althea’s story because of a photograph that hung on the wall of my childhood bedroom. It was taken in 1958 and shows two brown-skinned women, dressed in their tennis whites, holding tennis rackets and standing on the front lawn of the Merion Cricket Club, a prestigious and highly restricted tennis club outside of Philadelphia. One woman was my mother, Millicent Miller. The other was Althea Gibson. In the background, you can see a small score board that tells the tale of the match: a one-sided victory for Gibson. This was my mom’s moment of tennis glory, a story I heard many (many, many, many!) times and led me to take a look at the details of Althea’s life, which I found more and more compelling as I peeled back the layers.
Was there a particular obstacle you faced while making the film?
The biggest obstacle is the lack of visual material available on Althea in her life before she won her titles, which didn’t happen until she was around 29. There were a few images from when she broke the color barrier at 23, but there is zero material available from her childhood and young adulthood. We had to find alternative means of storytelling.
What did you learn during the making of ALTHEA that you’d pass on to aspiring documentary filmmakers?
The film that you set out to make is never the one you end up finishing. One has to constantly deal with obstacles, but if you’re persistent, you can make it happen. If it were easy, everyone would do it!
Why do you think Washington, DC is a valuable location to screen the film?
Althea Gibson was a reluctant Civil Rights icon. She was pressured to make speeches, but that wasn’t her make-up, and she preferred to let her racket do the talking. As Billie Jean King said, “Arthur (Ashe) and I used our tennis to further our causes. That’s not what she wanted. She just wanted to be allowed to compete.”
Tickets to ALTHEA, which will screen at AFI DOCS on June 19 and 21, 2015, are available for purchase online. Watch the trailer below.