Award-winning Durham filmmakers Rex Miller and Elisabeth Haviland James are almost ready for moviegoers to see their new documentary, Althea, which is about legendary African-American athlete Althea Gibson. They just need to finish paying for it.
“I like to tell people we could basically show it tomorrow, that the story and editing are all set,” says Miller, who served as director, producer and director of photography on the film. He and James had to turn down an offer to screen the film at Durham’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival because of rights issues.
“It was a painful decision not to screen the film at Full Frame; it is our hometown festival, and we have both had wonderful experiences there with past projects,” says James, the film’s producer and editor. “But it was the responsible choice we had to make to protect the stability of the project moving forward.” The filmmakers have to pay for archival material—$75,000 for 450 photographs and dozens of video clips from the likes of Getty Images and the Associated Press, newly unearthed images of black tennis players by Gordon Parks, and other materials.
“We feel that’s what makes the film really strong, and we need to get the funds to license that material,” Miller says. To pay for the rights and finish what James calls a “visual spit ‘n’ polish,” the filmmakers have started an Indiegogo campaign to raise $30,000, which as of March 5 had raised more than $7,000 of its goal.
Gibson, who was born in Clarendon County, S.C., was the first black athlete to win such tennis championships as the U.S. Nationals, the French Open and Wimbledon. She was also the first black female professional golfer, and had a career that extended into track, basketball and even performing, as a singer and actress alongside John Wayne in the John Ford film The Horse Soldiers.
Her life was not always easy, though. In addition to the racism of the mid-20th century, Gibson came into conflict with what Miller calls “the black upper class” as she distanced herself from the burgeoning civil rights movement. “She didn’t want to be a black tennis player,” Miller says. “She wanted to compete.”
“She was very complex—on the one hand wanting very much to be a part of society, while shunning some aspects of it that would have made her more widely accepted,” adds James. “She wanted to make her point not by making speeches, but by beating all her opponents. Her story is very powerful and touching. Whether you’re a tennis player or not, or aware of our unique civil rights story or not, you’re going to find something to connect to in this. It’s gotten a very emotional response from everyone who’s seen it.”
The film has been a passion project for Miller, whose father was a tennis coach and whose mother played tennis locally, with her prized possession being a photo of her with Gibson after playing a match. “That photo hung on my bedroom wall as a kid,” Miller says. He’s worked on the film for about five years, though James says he’s been “working on it in his mind” for decades.
James feels that Althea is an appropriate follow-up to the Emmy- and Peabody-winning documentary she produced and edited, The Loving Story, which told the story of an interracial Virginia couple who fought for the legality of their marriage. “I was already so immersed in that era and its challenges,” she says.
The filmmakers have raised $250,000 to produce the film over about six years, mostly from tennis players, and will screen part of the film at a local fundraiser on March 26. “We want to keep this a truly independent production, outside of the studios,” James says. Miller has formed partnerships with such tennis organizations as the USTA, NYJTL and DOCTA to ensure that the finished project will be shown in educational and grassroots settings to help educate and inspire young athletes.
“It’s important that young people in tennis today get to see this story,” James says. “We want to make sure the audience that has the most to benefit gets a chance to experience it and learn from it.”
The fundraiser for Althea is at 6 p.m. on Wednesday., March 26, at 1218 Vickers Street, with a suggested donation of $500. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. The Indiegogo campaign runs through April 4.