Venus and Serena When I was in boot camp and someone complained that something was too hard, our company commander would tell us to look in the dictionary between ‘shit’ and ‘syphilis’ to find his sympathy. After screening Magnolia Pictures new documentary Venus and Serena, I felt far less manly watching these two women from Compton asking for and taking no sympathy at all.
For ten years the Williams sisters dominated tennis, finding their only real competition with each other. Despite this they continue to be best friends and separated by even less than the mere fifteen months that differentiate their birth. Coached initially by their father Richard Williams on the mean streets of south central Los Angeles, his well-documented history of control, thought by some to be far too meddlesome and overbearing is made light of. Initially I thought this was perhaps a bit irresponsible of the filmmakers, then I saw the character of the women he helped shape into tennis icons.
The thing is, Venus and Serena discarded their race card a long time ago. So any flak I would want to give the filmmakers for creating a fluff piece is disarmed once you see the nature of these incredible athletes. If the film appears to gloss over the hardships in trailblazing through a traditionally conservative sport then it is just the filmmakers keeping to the tone of their subject. Venus and Serena are competitors, and unapologetic about it, this is due to the largely misunderstood relationship between them and their parents.Yes, he had several other children outside of his marriage. Serena found out about a brother she never knew when he showed up at practice one day calling Richard ‘Dad.’ Yes he fervently controlled media access. Yes he says some strange things that annoy his daughters. The difference is that they, unlike the media, take it all with a grain of salt.
There is much love there, and the sisters never let any of his baggage become theirs. A bit surprising was the amount of access the filmmakers managed to get, especially the footage of Serena’s medical procedures as she was recovering from a blood clot in her lung. I was amazed at her toughness as she gave herself a shot in her leg so that she could fly without worrying about clotting so that she could compete in the French Open. I don’t like to work with a headache; these women go through months of painful rehab amidst doubts about their ability to go on in a sport that has an age range similar to gymnasts. And this was after they have made their money and cemented their legacy!
I was always of fan of their tennis, and nominally familiar with their success on the court. I liked how they seemed to scare the competition, and how they brought their own flavor with their play and their fashion. There’s a great scene with their mother answering asinine questions about their on-court grunting. There is also the story of the tournament at Indian Wells in 2001 where the crowd of twenty thousand booed Serena mercilessly because her sister dropped out just before they were due to play. Instead of crying racism (something their mother and father did) she took the high road and simply refused to participate in that tournament again, after she won the whole thing, that is.
To me, that is the essence of the Williams sisters: They will never give up, they will take their lumps, and stand it like their father taught them to, and they will certainly give some back. Much of the information in this documentary can be found through an honest Wikipedia page, but you would miss that essence, the internal story of two sisters buoyed by each other’s success and never letting the extremes raise them too high like Icarus or ground them altogether. The film features a fun and energetic sound crafted by Wyclef Jean, and is well paced throughout, cutting between their rise and their recovery to their hopeful comeback. It was inspiring, even moving me to tears once or twice. Tears of joy, not sympathy.
Venus and Serena opens May 10th, watch the trailer here.