Exasperated in traffic? Why not calm your mind by reflecting on Joan of Arc, a silent movie masterpiece made in 1928.
In Joan of Arc, the emphasis on the faces insists that these very people did what they did. Dreyer strips the church court of its ritual and righteousness and exposes its members as fleshy hypocrites in the pay of the British; their narrow eyes and mean mouths assault Joan’s sanctity.
Perhaps the secret of the director Carl Theodore Dreyer’s success is that he asked himself, “What is this story really about?” And after he answered that question he made a movie about absolutely nothing else.
Before Arthur Ashe, there was Althea Gibson. Some might not think to connect Ashe’s success to Ms. Gibson’s earlier achievements. But without Ms. Gibson’s success in women’s tennis, there would have been no path for Ashe to keep blazing. The roots of his Wimbledon title in 1975 began with Ms. Gibson’s championship in 1957. Now both champions who set firsts in tennis for African Americans are gone.
A golfer said, “It’s a great feeling, standing strong at the ball on the first tee, putting your glove on, staring down the fairway, hearing the click of balls on the practice putting green behind you, knowing that you’re in a tournament with the best in the world and that the best are your colleagues and that you belong and they know you belong.”
That’s what Althea Gibson, the first black woman to win a tennis Grand Slam title, was really about. Not belonging.
“A rustic woman, very sincere, who was also a woman who had suffered,” is how director Dreyer described Joan of Arc.
Althea Gibson played tennis under the auspices of the American Tennis Association (ATA), the organization for black players, who were not allowed to join the United States Lawn Tennis Association.
The United States Lawn Tennis Association, tennis’s governing body, was established in 1881 by a small group of white tennis club members in New York City. The United States Lawn Tennis Association discriminated against blacks. No black was permitted to play in a USLTA event, no less become a member of the august organization.
By showing so little interest in extraneous details, Dreyer produced a haunting vision of one woman’s suffering, charting her wide-eyed terror as she is confronted by a jury of French ecclesiastics.
Although all Gibson ever wanted was the opportunity to achieve what she could as an individual, she had first hand, haunting knowledge of the discrimination facing African-Americans in American society.
Even at her peak and winning major tournaments, Althea Gibson was denied rooms at hotels. One refused to book reservations for a luncheon in her honor.
Althea Gibson learned to view herself in the diminished way that the white world viewed her: “I was the best woman player in Negro tennis.”
By the 1950s, the white sports world was buckling under pressure to open its doors to black athletes. Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby had integrated professional baseball in 1947. Still, Gibson was turned down in 1950 when she requested an invitation to a United States Lawn Tennis Association-sanctioned state tournament in New Jersey.
When she heard about the turndown, the great tennis player Alice Marble wrote an editorial published in the July 1, 1950 issue of American Tennis Magazine: “Miss Gibson is over a very cunningly wrought barrel, and I can only hope to loosen a few of its staves with one lone opinion. If tennis is a game for ladies and gentlemen, it’s also time we acted a little more like gentlepeople and less like sanctimonious hypocrites…… If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of women players, it’s only fair that they should meet that challenge on the courts.”
At the end of July, 1950 the Special Invitational Selections Committee of the USLTA invited Althea Gibson to the US National at Forest Hills.
In the second round, Gibson was beating the number four seed, Louise Brough, 6-1,6-3, and leading 7-6 in the third set. History in the making. Segregation ending. Discrimination disappearing.
Years later, Althea Gibson looked wide-eyed into a camera and said, “I was beating her, and all of a sudden the clouds opened up, the sky got dark, as if, as if, they didn’t want me to win this match. And the rain came pouring down. Lightning came immediately and struck the eagle on that corner of the stadium and tumbled it down and they had to postpone the match. I had to sleep on that overnight and the next day I came out and I didn’t have anything. I lost all sting and she beat me.”
In 1957 Althea Gibson won the US Lawn Tennis Association Championship and raised her arms in triumph to the sky. “Triumph! Triumph!” she thundered into the air, without uttering a word. But all that came was a sinking feeling of emptiness. That’s all that came to this hollowed woman, so full of loving echoes.