Arthur Ashe's Life, Legacy Explored in New Documentary Trailer: 'Origin Story of a Social Activist'

Citizen Ashe's director says viewers will learn the "activist that Arthur was off the tennis court and how dedicated he was to fighting injustice"

Arthur Ashe is remembered as one of the tennis greats, but do fans really know the athlete and activist's story?

A new documentary from Magnolia Pictures, HBO Max and CNN Films, called Citizen Ashe, aims to explore Ashe's journey to the top of professional tennis, his diagnosis with AIDs and his ongoing impact and legacy.

In the exclusive trailer for the upcoming film, which will be shown in theatres in New York and Los Angeles on Dec. 3 and 10, respectively, footage of Ashe from his heyday plays.

"We were climbing the ladder of inclusion and here was this guy in this lily-white institution of top tier tennis," a voiceover says in the trailer.

The film comes from Emmy Award-winning filmmakers Rex Miller and Sam Pollard and features a blend of archival newsreel and family footage, as well as interviews with Ashe's contemporaries like Billie Jean King, John McEnroe and Donald Dell.

Family members also provide new interviews for the doc, including Jeanne Moutousammy-Ashe, the widow of Ashe (who died of AIDS-related complications in 1993) and Johnnie Ashe, his brother.

"What one learns from this film is the activist that Arthur was off the tennis court and how dedicated he was to fighting injustice, particularly in South Africa," director Pollard tells PEOPLE.

The Academy Award-winner grew up in the 1960s and says he was "very familiar" with Ashe and his story. He explains, "as a young Black man who was struggling with what it meant to be a Black man in America, I identified completely what with Arthur was going through. So having an opportunity to be involved with this film seemed only natural for me."

Arthur Ashe
Focus on Sport/Getty

Ashe was the only Black man to ever win the men's singles title at Wimbledon, the US Open, and the Australian Open. He was elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1985, three years before he was diagnosed with HIV. Ashe publicly announced that he was HIV-positive in 1992 and subsequently founded the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS. He died at age 49.

Miller's interest in Ashe's story was piqued after the daughter of photographer John S. Zimmerman reached out to tell him she was in possession of never-before-seen images of the tennis icon.

"That kick-started my conversations with [Moutoussamy-Ashe], Arthur's widow, who had never previously agreed to participate or assist in a film about her late husband," Miller tells PEOPLE. "We began a dialogue and after a year of research and discussion, she agreed that the time was right, that this would be the film the Ashe family and estate would support."

He recounts Moutoussamy-Ashe, telling him, "I've been wanting to assist a film about Arthur for the last 25 years, I finally found the right people."

Says Miller: "The Ashe family bestowed upon me an opportunity and an honor."

Miller notes that the documentary is not a "tennis film," but instead a "first look at the Arthur Ashe nobody knows, the origin story of a social activist."

Citizen Ashe
Citizen Ashe. Magnolia Pictures and CNN Films

Both Miller and Pollard note Ashe's generosity and kindness and see his lasting impact on the sports world, and beyond it.

Pollard says he's taught other athletes that "as a man of color, even if you are sports icon, you have an obligation to speak out about wrongs and injustices in society, no matter what the costs."

Adds Miller: "Arthur always stood his ground, emphasizing that he preferred to go about creating change 'his way.' "

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