Rex Miller knew from an early age who Althea Gibson was. The son of two tennis fanatics, his childhood bedroom wall featured a picture of the first black woman to win the Wimbledon singles title, standing with Miller’s mother outside a racially restricted Pennsylvania tennis club.
“I got reacquainted with the photo about five years ago, and I Googled her, and I got interested in making this film,” says the Durham-based director of “Althea.” Miller’s documentary was shown at this year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham and will be broadcast Friday night on UNC-TV under the American Masters brand. “I never knew everything she accomplished, and the arc of her story, growing up in the cotton fields of South Carolina to winning the Wimbledon trophy. How did she make the trip between those worlds?”
How indeed? Gibson (1927-2003) was born into Southern poverty, moved to New York as a child, grew up in the streets and didn’t even attend school between the ages of 12 to 18. Yet when she started playing paddle tennis she found her calling, was lucky enough to attract some mentors – including the Hall of Fame boxer Sugar Ray Robinson – went back to school (for a time in Wilmington) and eventually earned a college degree.
Gibson toiled for years on the racially segregated tennis circuit until, in 1950, she was given a chance to play in the U.S. Open, ultimately losing in the finals. Seven years later, after winning tournaments in Asia and Europe, she became U.S. and Wimbledon singles champion.
“She was world champion two years in a row, she had a (New York) ticker tape parade, she cut an album, she was the first black pro golfer,” says Miller, who is also the director of photography for the PBS series “A Chef’s Life,” about Kinston restauranteur Vivian Howard. “And (Gibson) was a reluctant civil rights icon. There were people who wanted her to represent the cause, but she preferred to let her racket do the talking.”
But Gibson performed in an era when there was no women’s professional tennis, so she quit at the height of her powers to earn a living – which, as the film makes very clear, she wasn’t very good at. “She was a kid from the street, she always had a little bit of that rough edge on her, and when she turned her back on the game, the game turned its back on her,” says Miller. “Althea did not have the ability on her own to create a business life for herself.”
Gibson eventually wound up bankrupt and suicidal. But thanks to the efforts of Angela Buxton, her Jewish doubles partner (you can only imagine how many country clubs this pair was denied entry to), the tennis community came to her aid, and Althea was able to live out her old age in relative comfort.
“I’ve always maintained that much of Althea’s pain was self-chosen,” says Miller. “She didn’t want to do what other people wanted her to do. I hope when people see this film they say, ‘Wow, I never knew.’ We want Althea to become a household name, and we want to get this film in schools, so kids, no matter what color, have a role model they can look up to.”
“Althea” airs at 9 p.m. Friday on UNC-TV.
More info at altheathefilm.com.