Film Review: Venus and Serena

Documentary about the phenomenal tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams sees them as women as well as phenomenon.

Why haven’t there been more good tennis movies about women? Easy answer: There haven’t been that many celebrated women in the sport. Token cinematic exceptions are Kirsten Dunst as a rising star in the 2004 romantic comedy Wimbledon and Holly Hunter in a spoofy 2007 TV feature, When Billie Beat Bobby. With Venus and Serena, that will change, just as the Williams Sisters changed so much about tennis.

Gone are the ladylike white outfits and genteel behavior (we do get an archival snippet of Althea Gibson). Street style, flash and balls-out muscular competition are in. As Bill Clinton, interviewed for the doc, notes, the Williams Sisters introduced tennis to a whole new swath of fans in America. (The wittiest quote is from Chris Rock: They were not country-club black, but like people he knew growing up.) Add that the sisters have sometimes competed against each other, and had to cut through the thicket of racism and poverty on their way to championships. How could the film not deliver, with its potent double metaphor of sisterhood and sports: competitive, supportive, and with power shifts abounding?

Yet the best thing about Maiken Baird and Michelle Major’s film is how it differentiates between the two women, in both action shots and live interviews. “I hate losing more than I like winning,” Serena admits. In other words, she knows just how good she is; she should win, and when she loses it’s herself she’s the angriest with. Venus, seemingly more sensitive, says she used to wear the same clothes for three days, and hug the couch if she lost. (She doesn’t do that anymore, but practices “obsessively”—her word.) Editor Sam Pollard includes a famous shot of Venus reacting, sidelined in the stands, watching one of Serena’s big wins. But Venus says she learned from this: Her younger sister had to show her how to fight. John McEnroe, a frequent commenter, observes that he could never be so gracious, remembering his own tennis battles against his sibling Patrick. Pollard, known for editing documentaries as well as Spike Lee films, is adroit throughout. After the infamous match where Serena gets nasty with a referee at the U.S. Open, we cut to much earlier, private film footage of her as a child answering the question about who she might like to imitate. Would it be McEnroe? Not much hesitation before a grinning nod.

Self-consciousness is not a worry after millions worldwide have seen you sweating profusely, though you still have to give Serena credit for allowing footage of her medical struggles during the fraught year of 2011: Cameras show her on a hospital bed with a pulmonary embolism, even giving herself injections. It’s nearly as brave for the sisters to be on camera with and without makeup, being “pulled together” or getting massaged in unguarded moments. Bits about their personal lives intrigue—Serena likes black guys mostly, though white ones are OK too; Venus can’t see getting married until much later in life since being a committed Jehovah’s Witness with a belief in wifely servitude is at odds with being an icon. The most startling scene, however, is when Serena gets angry with her practice partner, Sascha, for two slights, real or imagined. All is set against a background of poverty roots in Compton Calif., compared to the lavish but still homey digs they share in Florida.

The sisters’ wry sense of humor is what dazzles the most: their sideways take on fame, and themselves. Dad Richard Williams trained them unconventionally for strength, as football players and boxers, stressing a ghetto-derived toughness; and mom Oracene instilled pride in being strong women of African descent. But their ability to laugh is their own, keeping their heads screwed on right and making us want to watch their lighthearted ways.
Yet you leave the doc wanting more, and for the wrong reasons. There is a truncated interview with disgruntled coach Rick Macci, who asserts he discovered the sisters and paid for their move to his tennis camp. OK, maybe sour grapes. But is there a story within the story? Why did they decide to participate in a documentary at this time? What really drives them? Perhaps sensing some holes, the filmmakers have included pop psychological commentary by pundit Gay Talese for “deeper” probes.

Venus and Serena is also just a bit too polished and packaged. And with a sports-doc genre structure, and a trajectory of early struggle, breakthrough, setback and ultimate triumph (though indeed the Williams’ story perfectly fits this paradigm), you half expect to hear Bob Costas at any minute. So you’re glad for the music of Wyclef Jean pumping things up.